Category Archives: Sports

The Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.

The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.

And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.

But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight.  As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand.  But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.

The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.

(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)

One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.

There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.

The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.

But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.

This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!

More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.

They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.

Golden State

You become a sports fan, because you really like certain sports. You choose which teams you root for pretty randomly. I became a San Francisco Giants fan because my little league team, back in Indiana, went to a ballgame in Cincinatti, and I got to meet Willie McCovey. I became a San Francisco 49ers fan, in the NFL, because, hey, I was a fan of one San Francisco sports team, so why not root for San Francisco in other sports. I had never been to San Francisco when I made those decisions–in fact, I was just a kid, living in Indiana. And all my friends thought I was weird not to root for the Reds like a normal person. But the Giants and 49ers were my teams forever after. (I loved the Indiana college basketball team, of course, and the ABA Indiana Pacers. I was that much a Hoosier). It was just serendipity that I grew up and married a girl from Northern California.

Sometimes, though, you just fall in love. You have no connection to a particular group of athletes. You just like watching them play. Or like rooting against them. I love basketball, and have my whole life. But I’ve never rooted for LaBron James. I respect him. He seems like a good guy. He’s a wonderful basketball player. I just always find myself rooting against his team. No idea why.

It’s all weirdly random. I was a fan of San Francisco sports teams, not Northern California ones. I never cared about the Oakland A’s, or the Oakland Raiders. For that matter, I didn’t root for the Golden State Warriors. I suppose I knew they played their games in Oakland, but I didn’t care. They weren’t very good, and for me, they were just another team.  I just didn’t care.

Except, for the last two years, I do care. I have a crush. I am absolutely, madly in love with this particular iteration of the Golden State Warriors. And I know why. They play the most beautiful basketball on the planet. They are so marvelously constructed, so wonderfully well coached. Everything I value about the game of basketball, they excel in. They play team ball, sharing the ball, switching on defense, rebounding as a team, then running down the floor for yet another fastbreak. I’m a Hoosier, and that doesn’t just imply a fan of basketball, but a particular kind of basketball; team ball, built on defense and jump shots and quick, short, accurate passing. That’s the Warriors. As with the best basketball teams, they play with a kind of sloppy discipline, a relaxed intensity. They’re cool. They’re a real team.

And their best player doesn’t look he should be as good as he is. Stephen Curry is 6’3″. Tall-ish for a basketball player, but he looks short next to the other NBA players. He’s skinny and not very athletic looking. He insists that he’s capable of dunking a basketball, and his teammates say he’s done it in practice, but that’s not really his game; he’s not a great leaper. He’s not very strong. And he’s a bit slow, honestly; in a footrace, he’d probably finish close to last on his team. (Though he’s exceptionally quick laterally, with out-of-this-world hand-eye coordination).

What he is is a genius at playing basketball. He’s the most extraordinary shooter I’ve ever seen, with an instinct for that moment when the other team is poised to win a game, when a three-point jump shot will feel like a dagger to the heart. He’s a sleepy assassin, who looks a bit bored even while he’s nailing the important shots. He’s got an exceptionally quick release, and shoots with enough arc on his shot that even much taller players can’t block it. And he sees the floor better than anybody. He has a knack for it, for knowing which of his teammates is open, or going to be open, and precisely what kind of pass will get the ball to him.

There are guys like this, who just show up from time to time. Joe Montana was too short to be an NFL quarterback; too skinny, with insufficient arm strength to make the big throw. But he was the greatest leader in the sport, with the best field sense, and he became the greatest quarterback of his day. Wayne Gretzsky was thin, slow, unathletic. And the greatest hockey player of all time. These guys are just intuitively brilliant. It’s about sight, I think, and anticipation. They can see the game unfold, with a knack for seeing what’s likely to happen, and how they can exploit the situation as it develops.

He’s got a tremendous team surrounding him. Draymond Green is a strong, powerful forward, a stalwart defensive player and a fine shooter. Klay Thompson is a marvelous shooter as well, and a tough, battling defender and rebounder. Harrison Barnes is a young guy, probably the best pure athlete on the team, quick enough at 6’10” to guard anyone. Andrew Bogut is a big bruising inside presence. And the Warriors have put together the best bench in the league, with a series of veterans, former All-Stars, who have somehow agreed to set aside egos and do what’s needed for the team to win: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingstone, David Lee, Mareese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush. Their coach is Steve Kerr, one of Michael Jordan’s favorite former teammates, and when you watch them play defense, you can see MJ’s influence; they’re just tenacious.

Above all, though, they have Curry. I don’t know him, of course, though last night I was as charmed as anyone when, during the post-game press conference, his two-year old daughter told him to ‘be quiet, Daddy.’  He seems very nice; bright and articulate, and not as ferociously competitive as his game suggests. He’s a beautiful athlete, though. And I’ve become a Warriors’ fan.


The NCAA tournament

The annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament started yesterday, an orgy of missed shots, wild dunks, last second finishes, agony and joy. Sixteen games were played yesterday, all of them nationally televised, five of them decided by one point. I watched at least some of all of them; basically I wore out my remote. As always, it was very exciting.

And not. Because if you’re a lifetime basketball fan–and I am–you can’t help but notice how bad college basketball has become. Every possession, more or less, ends with a guy blasting past a defender, flinging a wild shot in the general direction of the rim, followed by five guys flailing to grab a rebound. College baskeball has become an over-coached, over-defended, badly officiated (make that ‘horrendously officiated’) travesty. At its best, basketball can become an argument, a statement in a continuing debate over how the game is supposed to be played, over strategies and tactics and fundamentals. At its worst, basketball is thuggish, slow, and ugly. And dangerous; it amazes me that more kids aren’t hurt.

And Kentucky’s going to win. Kentucky, with six freshmen and three sophomores in their regular playing rotation. And you might think, wow, what a dynasty! All those young players; how good are they going to be next season! Ha. Next season, they’ll all be in the NBA. They’re ‘college students’ in the same sense that the kids on Glee are in ‘high school.’’s Brian Phillips had an interesting article today discussing the problems inherent in the current game. As Phillips points out, there are a number of relatively simple rule changes that could be implemented that would speed the game up, open it up, and make it more entertaining. But it’s almost impossible for the NCAA to make those changes, because doing so would require that they admit that they are creating and selling a product, ‘college basketball broadcasts,’ that needs to be tweaked to make it more fun to watch. The fiction is that these are ‘student-athletes,’ college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity, televised as a public service, so that their families and interested alums can enjoy seeing them play. In fact, though, the NCAA generates billions of dollars from college basketball. And does so through a business model in which they don’t pay the people who generate it.

Every time I drive from Provo to Salt Lake and back, I pass several billboards for BYU sports. Right now, it’s basketball season, and so those billboards feature Tyler Haws, the star of the team. Haws, of course, isn’t being paid for the use of his likeness on those billboards. Nor are his teammates compensated for all the posters and tee shirts and hats and bobbleheads and water bottles featuring the BYU basketball team. I know the argument: they’re being compensated in that they receive a college education. That’s a valuable commodity. True enough, and especially for someone like Tyler Haws, who is a good student. Still, it seems disproportionate; millions of revenue generated, with almost nothing going to the players.

Remember last year’s tournament? Exciting stuff, right? Shabazz Napier and UConn? Remember what Napier said afterwards? How some days were just ‘hungry days,’ because his scholarship didn’t provide sufficiently for meals, and he wasn’t allowed to get a job or in any other way make enough money to buy a Big Mac?

Okay, Shabazz Napier’s in the NBA now; for him, it was worth it. Most players have that dream; the dream of a professional career. For 98 percent of them, it’s a pipe dream. So what happens then?

John Oliver’s show, last week, straightforwardly recommended that college basketball players be paid. I’ve heard that from other sources. And it’s probably going to happen. Ed O’Bannon won his lawsuit against EA Sports, after suing them for using his image without his permission. That verdict is being appealed, but when the appeals are exhausted, we’re going to see some compensation for college athletes.

Meanwhile, let me give the ‘fix the NCAA’ problem a shot. I taught for twenty years in the BYU Theatre department. We had a lot of kids in our program who wanted careers on Broadway or Hollywood; most of them didn’t make it. But they did get a good college education, and I have former students who are attorneys, successful business people, some are in medical school; they didn’t so much abandon their dreams as re-route them. The kids who acted in our college theatre productions weren’t paid. But a lot of our students were paid; to work in the scene shop, to hang lights, to sell tickets, to work in marketing. And our actors were actively encouraged to work professionally. I remember one actress who got the lead in a Disney movie. When her work on that film was done, she came back to school, acted in college productions, finished her degree. Now she’s a successful professional actress. As faculty, what did we think of her work on that Disney movie? We thought it was awesome. We had a party and watched it. We rooted for her then, and we root for her today.

So I’m going to make some recommendations to the NCAA, none of which I expect that organization to listen to for a second. Because, let’s face it, the NCAA is appalling, an organization of rule-bound ninnies, liars and hypocrites. Overpaid frauds. It’s an group of college administrators, after all, hardly nature’s aristocrats; these are people who think ‘university assessment’ is a good idea. They won’t change until they have to.’s my fix for the NCAA. Number one: permanently abandon, once and for all, the notion of the ‘amateur athlete.’ The Olympics doesn’t bother with it anymore, and neither should the NCAA. All those ridiculous rules in which a player is suspended and a program punished because his coach bought him a sandwich accomplish nothing except expose the NCAA to ridicule.

An athletic scholarship should be non-revocable. All athletic scholarships, in all sports offered on campus. Pay for those extra scholarships by cutting the salaries of coaches and athletic directors. Every athlete receiving one should be guaranteed a college education. If a coach recruits a player, and gives him a scholarship, then that kid gets, free of charge, five years worth of a college education, period. Right now, coaches routinely recruit more players than they have scholarships for, and if one of them turns out to be less good at basketball than the coach initially thought, he’s out of luck. That needs to end. Let colleges offer as many athletic scholarships as they want to, no limits, but with the understanding that they can’t take that scholarship away, at all, ever, for any non-academic reason. If the kid gets injured, he keeps the scholarship. If a kid doesn’t make the team, he keeps the scholarship.

Also, let them be college students. Put serious limits on how much time kids spend in practice. ‘Voluntary workouts’ count against practice time. Every second a kid spends out of class, in a weight room or in meetings or working out with coaches counts against practice time. Limit practice time to twenty hours a week, and enforce it.

If a kid is able to earn money off the court, that’s fine. Let him appear in a Disney movie. Or play on a D-league summer team. Or appear in a local commercial. Or sell his autograph. Or flip burgers. Whatever. None of that is any of your business. (Will this lead to abuses? Will boosters offer the starting quarterback no-show jobs at their businesses? Sure, probably. I just don’t think that kid of petty corruption is policeable).

I would probably put a cap on coaches salaries. I’d also like to see coaches treated like tenure-track faculty. If they make tenure, you can’t fire them. And give them some classroom responsibilities. Make ’em teach a class or two.

None of this is likely to happen, of course. But I’d love to see it. These kids are being mistreated, and it’s wrong. And while we’re at it, make the game a little more fun. For starters, let the kids play. Limit coaches time-outs to two per half. Let college kids be college kids. I promise, they’ll amaze you.



Chris Borland

Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.

Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.

And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s  the interview.

Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.

But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets.  The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’

I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.

And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.

And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.


Utah Jazz: 2015

I’m trying something brand new this year. I’m rooting for a sports team, watching as many of their games as I can, but not watching any game to the end. I don’t care if they win. I’m looking for improvement, not results. And I’m having a blast.

I have a theory about team sports. When your team wins all the time, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You tend to become complacent about winning; worse, you get arrogant. When your team loses all the time, that’s even worse. You start to get all numb about fan-ness, cynical, even. I know that being a sports fan is absurd; the fun comes when we really embrace that absurdity. What really builds sports fanaticism is when your team is very good every year, and almost wins. Every year, you root like crazy, there are wonderful moments, but in the end, you’re stabbed in the heart. The best fans, the most informed, most passionate, are fans of the Red Sox and Cubs in baseball, the Browns and Bills in football, the Thunder and the Jazz in basketball. The close-but-no-cigar fans.

I have been a big Utah Jazz fan ever since my family moved out here in 1992. And, of course, as it happens, 1992 was a particularly good year to be a Jazz fan. Year Seven of the Stockton/Malone era. John Stockton was one of the greatest point guards who has ever played the game; Karl Malone, one of the greatest forwards. Stockton the passer, Malone the scorer. Stockton stealing the ball, Malone getting rebounds. And they were both fitness fanatics, and lasted forever. It was fun to watch. Salt Lake City renamed two city streets, so when you go to a Jazz game today, the arena is located at the corner of Stockton and Malone.

And then, finally, Stockton and Malone both retired. And we hung in there for awhile, building a team on guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams. But all good things end, and last year’s team was, frankly, pretty hard to root for. They played ugly, losing basketball. A mixture of young, unproved talent, and old, past-their-prime mediocrity. They lost, but what’s worse, they looked bad while losing. The single most fundamental play in basketball (and the play we watched Stock and Karl run to perfection year after year) is called the pick-and-roll. And the Jazz last year could not more defend a pick-and-roll than solve differential equations.

I knew the Jazz were going to be bad this year. But I thought there was a chance they’d be interestingly bad. They got rid of guys like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, guys who had never been stars and were now at the tail ends of mediocre careers. It was a youth movement all the way, a team with four rookies on the roster. They also hired a terrific young coach, Quin Snyder. And when hired, he said all the right things. The guys on the team were going to grow together, fail together, learn together, improve together.

That’s why I decided not to care if they won or not. And early this year, they lost a lot. They made a lot of mistakes, threw the ball away, got discouraged, couldn’t score when they needed to. But they just kept improving, especially defensively. They can guard a pick-and-roll. And on offense, you can see Snyder’s influence. Their spacing is better. They’re becoming a good passing team, looking for the guy with the open shot. They’re playing the kind of basketball I love, unselfish ball, with everyone touching the ball, working it around, drive and dish.

My favorite guy on the current team has to be Rudy Gobert. He’s 22, and huge. 7′ 1″, with an abnormally wide wingspan. He didn’t even start playing basketball until 2009, when his friends apparently suggested that a guy like him might have more success playing basketball than soccer. Last year, Rudy was big and awkward and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing out there. But he worked hard, kept after it, listened to the coaching staff. This season, you can see him improve week by week, game by game. It’s palpable, his growth, his increased understanding. Last year, he couldn’t catch the ball; this year, he’s got pretty good hands. Last year, he couldn’t shoot at all; this year, he’s got a nifty little hook shot, which usually misses, but looks serviceable enough. (In practice, he’s a deadeye with that shot). Above all, he can block shots. He was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, and looks like a steal.

A big guy needs a passer, and the Jazz took a gamble in the last draft, taking a flyer on a 19 year old Australian kid, Dante Exum. They drafted him on pure potential. He didn’t have good form on his shot, and you can see how inexperienced he is. But his shot has improved a lot this season, and he’s also grown defensively. Last night, he guarded Tony Parker of the Spurs (a certain Hall-of-Fame point guard), and completely outplayed him. Dante’s fast, quick, tall, a leaper, an athlete. He also doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just a kid. And he’s getting so very good at finding open teammates. He could be outstanding.

Until a week ago, the Jazz had a big center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey. Talented player, good shooter, good rebounder, really improving. And Enes seemed happy enough to be in Utah. But his agent, Max Ergul, was, to put it politely, nuts. Kanter was a good player, but he was not, as his agent seems to have believed, “the most dominant player of his generation.” Uh, no. I watched him play, game after game. And to be blunt, Enes Kanter was a bad defensive player. I saw it, game after game; whoever we played, their center had a career night while being guarded by Enes Kanter. Kanter could score, but obviously that doesn’t help your team when you give up even more points on the other end of the floor.  Ergul whined and whined about how the Jazz ‘mistreated’ his client, and finally he was traded, to Oklahoma City. He’ll do well there. And the Jazz haven’t lost since he left. Trading Enes Kanter was a classic case of addition by subtraction.

Add Exum and Gobert to a foundation of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and you’ve got enough talent to compete, and the coach to help them get there. And the team should have two first round draft picks in this year’s draft. I know who I want them to use them on: Willie Caulley-Stein of Kentucky and Justin Anderson of Virginia. They both should be around when the Jazz draft, and they’re both perfect fits for Coach Quin’s system. This team is going to be fun to watch.


Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.



When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?



Football! Doomed!

College football season started last weekend, and this weekend the NFL begins. Actually, it began last night, when the Seattle Seahawks clobbered Green Bay. And I’m excited for the new season. Kind of. Sort of excited. I like football, I enjoy watching it. The athletes are incredible, and there’s something breathtaking about a receiver catching a perfect spiral, somehow looking the ball into his hands while top-tapping along the sideline, barely in bounds. My wife showed me a terrific poem she’d found the other day, about the experience of playing high school football. (I can’t find it, or I’d quote). The author describes the muscle ache of landing on a frozen field in December, trying to see the play develop through his misting breath. Long descriptions of exhaustion and pain. And then the final line: “Dang, it was fun.”

I never played organized football, but I played lots of disorganized football, with my brothers and neighbor kids in someone’s back yard.  We’d play tackle, and crash into each other, and the ball would squirt loose, and then we’d all scramble for it. Our backyard was long and narrow, and doubled as our dog’s, uh, water closet.  And so at the end of a game, our clothes would be torn and filthy, covered with grass stains and doggy dew.  Hands red–football’s a fall sport–an aching knee or ankle or shoulder or all of the above.  Dang it was fun.

And then there’s this. The greatest football game I ever saw in my life was a college game, the 1980 Holiday Bowl. My prospective father-in-law and I watched it together, while my fiancee went to a bridal shower. It was a few days before the wedding. My father-in-law was, at least initially, rather a forbidding figure, and I found him intimidating, but not after that game.  That game! It was a male bonding experience like none other, watching as Jim McMahon essentially willed BYU to victory over a frankly vastly superior SMU team. I loved McMahon anyway, still the greatest college quarterback I’ve ever seen. There were rumors that he got away with all kinds of honor-code violating stuff, which made me like him all the better; I could rebel vicariously through him, I thought. McMahon played in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl ring as quarterback of the 1985 Chicago Bears. He was an NFL rebel too, and a brilliant player.

Jim McMahon is three years younger than I am. And he’s suffering from early onset dementia.  Repeated concussions have left him in constant pain, unable to remember, at times, the names of his children. His Bears’ friend and former teammate, Dave Duerson, committed suicide. An autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that is found increasingly in former professional football players, and not found in the general population at large.  A documentary film, League of Denial, which details the way professional football has covered up concussion-related injuries, was supposed to air on ESPN. Under pressure from the NFL, ESPN decided not to air it. (I saw it on Frontline. Devastating.)

And it’s not just concussions. Former football players have shorter lifespans than other Americans. Knees, backs, shoulders were all traumatized by the realities of professional football.  And the NFL has been very slow to respond to the health crisis among former players.

It’s a hard sport to root for.  And while the game becomes increasingly popular, it feels increasingly doomed.  It would not surprise me if it ceased to exist as a popular American sport.  No less a commentator than Bill Simmons has chosen to start this season with a state-of-the-sport op-ed that makes that very point: rooting for the NFL feels icky.

Football is a violent, contact sport. That’s one of the things I used to like about it. As a kid, I liked the speed and physicality of the sport. I wasn’t any good at it; if I had tried to play high school ball, I would certainly have spent most of my time on the bench.  But I get the appeal. I watch it, and enjoy watching it. I rationalize that enjoyment: they’re consenting adults, and very well paid–grown-ups making grown-up choices. And at its best, football can be beautiful.  So can soccer, and I’m increasingly watching soccer games, and not watching American football.  I expect that will continue.

And the prospective demise of professional football is the good news.  News out of the college game is even rottener.

It’s perfectly true that a full-ride college scholarship is a valuable commodity.  There are any number of college athletes who were able to attend college because they played football, who would not have gone to college otherwise, who have subsequently become very successful men because of their educations. Those people, the genuine ‘student-athletes’ are in the minority. Most college program pamper football players to an almost ridiculous degree–provide tutors who literally pick them up and get them to class and ‘help’ with papers and homework. If players become injured and are unable to contribute athletically, they often lose their scholarships. Amateurism in college sports was always a hypocritical joke, allowing schools to make huge amounts of money off the blood and labor of young athletes, who can’t share in that money. Football makes Title IX a joke–female athletes are rarely treated equally in terms of scholarships or money.  And coaches’ salaries are ridiculous: in how many states is the football coach the highest paid state employee?

That’s all going to change. College basketball player, Ed O’Bannon, was infuriated to discover that his image and likeness was being used in a college basketball video game marketed by EA Sports.  He became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, and won.  Forbes magazine’s article on the case suggested that the NCAA didn’t just lose, so did the ‘theory of amateurism.’  And so we find ourselves in untested ground, where college athletes really can be paid to play.  There’s another case pending, in which college athletes could (and probably will) win the right to unionize.

Nobody knows how all this is going to work. My guess is that the already tenuous link between ‘playing college football’ and ‘attending college’ will be further eroded.  My guess is that the Alabamas and USCs and Florida States of the world will begin competing for football players with alumni money, and the NCAA could well cease to exist as a governing entity.  That seems to me the most likely outcome.

What will kill football?  Three things.  The further degradation of the college game, which has been such a strong feeder system for the NFL.  Rules about when players can declare for the draft or how much they can be paid and when or whether or not college attendance even becomes necessary will all change, haphazardly and probably conference by conference. Second, I suspect that high schools will no longer support football programs, because they won’t be able to afford the health insurance premiums.  And third, the vague unease felt by fans (like me), will increase, to the point that we give up and start watching a safer sport.  I’m close to that point.

Football has never been more popular.  I think it’s also doomed.  And I’m not sure that’s not a good thing.


A baseball game

Last night, the San Francisco Giants played the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game. It was a tremendous game, and possibly an important one, if any game in late August can be considered important.  The Giants won, on a ninth inning home run by Buster Posey.  That home run was the headline, and dominated the game stories in the press and on-line. But the game actually turned on three earlier plays. I know that a lot of you who read this blog don’t much care for baseball. But maybe a short discussion of these plays will help you understand the endless fascination some of us have for this remarkable sport.

The first came in the fourth inning. Up to that point in the game, neither team had scored. But with one out, Giants’ shortstop Matt Duffy hit a hard double to left. Second baseman Joe Panik then sliced a single to left, but hit too hard for Duffy to score. So that was the situation; runners on first and third, one out. The Rockies’ pitcher was Franklin Morales, a left handed pitcher. And the batter was Gregor Blanco.

Gregor Blanco does not usually start.  Neither does Duffy. They were in the game to give a day’s rest to the usual starters. Blanco is a fine player in every aspect of the game except hitting. He’s fast, a good outfielder, a fine baserunner.  But he’s a left-handed hitter, and at a disadvantage against a lefty.  And he’s not a terrific hitter even under more favorable circumstances. Blanco did not need to get a hit for Duffy to score.  A fly ball or hard grounder could score him. But Blanco looked badly overmatched on the first two pitches.

On the third pitch, though, Blanco laid down a surprise bunt. In that situation, a squeeze, as it’s called, can be an effective play. There are two kinds of squeezes.  The first is a suicide squeeze.  In this play, the runner on third just heads straight for home plate, trying to steal home.  The batter just has to get his bat on the ball, knowing any kind of bunt will score the runner. But it’s risky. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner will be out by an embarrassing margin. Or the batter could pop the bunt up, leading to an easy double play.

The second kind of squeeze is called a safety squeeze.  The runner holds on third until he can see that the batter has made a good bunt. But he has to time his run home perfectly, not going too early or too late.  And the batter has to place his bunt correctly, right at the first or third baseman, and not to the pitcher, who would have an easy toss home. As it happened, Blanco and Duffy pulled it off beautifully.  Blanco’s bunt went straight to the first baseman, and Duffy exquisitely timed his dash homeward. A run scored, and the Giants led 1-0. But think about it. Duffy has been in the major leagues for three weeks. He’s a young player, just 23, suddenly caught up in the excitement and tension and anxiety of a pennant race. And a safety squeeze requires communication between the batter and runner.  Blanco and Duffy have only been teammates for three weeks. In this crucial situation, though, Gregor Blanco and Matt Duffy executed a difficult play exactly as they were supposed to.

Okay, play two came in the ninth inning. The Giants led 2-1 heading into the ninth, but our best relief pitcher, Santiago Casilla, hit the first Rockies hitter with the first pitch of the inning, then gave up a game-tying double, to Justin Morneau. He got Nolan Arenado to ground out, then intentionally walked the dangerous Corey Dickerson, to set up a possible double play.  Runners on first and second, and the Rockies’ catcher Mike McKenry batting.  And then Casilla, having an off-night, uncorked a horrible pitch.

McKenry is a right handed batter.  The pitch was probably intended to be a slider on the outside corner.  But it completely got away from Casilla, and bounced at least two feet away from the plate, spinning even further away.  Buster Posey is the Giants’ catcher, and our best player. But if that ball got away from him, as it almost certainly would, both baserunners would advance. The double play possibility would vanish–the winning run would be able to score on an out.

Ordinarily, on a wild pitch like that, the catcher doesn’t really try to catch it so much as smother it. He’s wearing all that padding, after all. He wants to limit the damage, get his chest in front of the pitch, let it hit him, and then pounce on it before it can roll too far away.  It’s a tough maneuver, requiring that he move his feet quickly enough to get in front of the pitch.  But Casilla’s pitch was so far outside, smothering the ball just wouldn’t be possible. Nobody can move out of a catcher’s stance and get in front of a ball that quickly.

Posey didn’t even try. What he did was sort of hop and lunge. He hopped straight right, out of his stance, and then reached out with his glove (across his body, remember, since his glove was on his left hand and the ball was heading hard to his right), and just snatched the ball out of the air.  It was the most extraordinary thing.

It’s not the athleticism of the play that amazed me, though. It was the thought process it required.  Immediately upon the pitch leaving Casilla’s hand, Posey had to register what an awful pitch it was, and think ‘I’m not going to be able to reach that ball by conventional means. A shift-and-smother won’t work; it’s too far right and spinning too much. But maybe, if I hop right, I can lunge and reach it. Given the direction and spin, the ball should end up about . . . there. Go.’  And that hop-and-lunge is not a move most catchers practice–I’ve never seen it before, whereas the more conventional shift-and-smother move is one every catcher does hundreds of times. But somehow, in the heat of a pennant race, Buster Posey executed a play he cannot possibly have practiced much (or at all), and made it look actually kind of effortless.

The third big play came two pitches later. McKendry hit a slow bouncer to shortstop, and Duffy dashed in, fielded it, fired it to second, and then Joe Panik, the second baseman fired to first for the double play. The tough play was the pivot at second base by Panik.

The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be an easy double play. McKendry is quite slow; the problem was Dickerson, the runner on first. He’s a fast runner, and built like a running back, and he had a head start, a quick jump. Panik had to catch Duffy’s strong throw, then pivot towards first and make the throw for the second out.

There are several ways to make a second base pivot. But remember, the runner, Dickerson, doesn’t want the second baseman to make a good throw. He’s barreling into second, ready to clobber the second baseman, if he can reach him. He can’t be obvious about it; the umps will just rule interference, and call McKendry out. But he does want to take Panik out.  And some second baseman, knowing that, will leap and pivot.  But what Panik did was use second base as a kind of protection. He caught the ball behind the bag, touched second, and leaned back, away from Dickerson, and from that position, made the strong sidearm throw to first.

The lean-back pivot is one players practice. A good second baseman will have practiced it regularly, along with four or five other pivot moves.  So in many respects, Panik’s pivot was just a professional ballplayer making the right play for the situation; unremarkable.  But Joe Panik is a rookie too.  As is Duffy. These two young guys, in the middle of a pennant race, in a tough, close game, kept their wits about them and made the play that needed to be made. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

And then came the bottom of the ninth inning, and Posey’s game winning home run. But it reminded me that baseball isn’t just about the obvious plays, the big home run or spectacular running catch. It’s about thinking on your feet, staying alert, figuring out, on the fly, what play you should make, and then executing it.  The Giants are among the best teams in baseball at doing the little things, mostly because, I think, they’re an exceptionally well coached team.  But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.


Tony Dungy

When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the most recent NFL draft, it was seen as very big, very important news.  Sam was the first openly gay football player to declare for the NFL draft, and to be drafted.  If he makes the team, he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  And the Rams’ decision to draft Sam was seen as a wonderful thing, a step towards inclusiveness and openness and the overcoming of homophobia.  And Sam’s courage in coming out was seen as a positive sign, suggesting that professional athletes in general and football players in specific (who, fairly or not, were seen as particularly benighted in this regard) were changing, that attitudes, at least, were more welcoming to the LGTB population than would likely have been the case only ten years ago, when Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers.

On Sunday, Tony Dungy, the much-respected former Colts’ head coach, who now works as a TV analyst, said he would not have drafted Sam. “I wouldn’t have taken him.  Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”  Tuesday, Dungy offered this clarification:

“What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams. I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does. I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.”

Despite this clarification, Dungy has come under attack.  Intemperate comments on social media suggested that Dungy should be fired from his job at NBC Sports. Even more vitriolic tweets speculated whether James, Dungy’s son, who killed himself in 2005, may have been gay, and that his suicide may have been because he was rejected by his father.  Dungy is an evangelical Christian, and has publicly opposed marriage equality, though not since 2007. Dungy is also one of the most respected figures in the entire NFL. He has consistently reached out to troubled players, and is credited by many for making a difference in the lives of young men, in football, who have made poor life choices.

This gets tricky, because this whole situation was exacerbated by a particularly inflammatory post by a well-known conservative blogger.  Ordinarily, I link to any source I cite.  In this case, though, I refuse to.  I will not be party to driving traffic to his site.  Nor will I even tell you his name.  His initials are MW.  Some of you probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me leave it at this: in my opinion, he’s not worth your time.

Anyway, this whole thing has kind of blown up.  Sports talk radio won’t let go of it, and neither will the underground world of sports and political bloggers. I don’t particularly want to add to the noise.  Let me make a few points:

1) Michael Sam has handled the whole controversy with humor and class.  His initial comment on it was some variation on ‘I’m glad he’s not my coach!’  Later, he clarified, tweeting “Everyone in America is entitled to his own opinion.”  Other than that, he’s stayed out of it.  He’s trying to make the Rams’ roster.  That’s tough enough.

2) Coaches hate distractions.  Coaches want their players totally, 100% focused on the immediate task in hand; winning football games.  For Dungy to say ‘I wouldn’t want a player who is likely to be surrounded by media distracting my team’ is not, in a football context, terribly unusual.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, who will make the decision regarding whether Sam makes the Rams’ roster, says he thinks Sam won’t be a distraction.  Fine: different coaches, different perspectives.

3) There are good reasons to think that Michael Sam will be a very good professional football player, and just as good reasons to think he might struggle.  Oddly enough, this question has become politicized in this discussion.  Not wanting to take too much of a shovel to the MW cesspool, let me say that the question of Sam playing in the NFL has little to do with politics.  Sam was the defensive player of the year in the toughest football conference in all of college football.  That suggests that he might be a remarkable talent, and a fine professional player.  He was also distinctly unimpressive in the NFL combine.  This doesn’t mean all that much.  Joe Montana’s throwing arm was thought to be inadequate coming out of combine workouts.  Emmitt Smith was too slow.  Sam Mills was too small.  They’re all in the Hall of Fame.  Sam might be a star.  He might not make the team.  If he makes the Rams, it will be because Jeff Fisher thinks he’s good enough to play.  That will be the only criterion, as it should be.

4) A well-nigh perfect comparison for Sam might be Tim Tebow.  Like Sam, Tebow was a brilliant college football player.  He was also known for things that had nothing to do with football (in Tebow’s case, his work as an evangelical missionary in Africa, and his very public embrace of a kind of muscular Christianity).  But Tebow’s talents did not translate well to the NFL, and his career has been short, and is now likely over.  We don’t know, of course, but if Sam doesn’t make the team (and he might not), it will be for football reasons.

5) This whole controversy is so immensely dispiriting.  Tony Dungy was asked a football question, and gave a football answer.  To accuse him of homophobia without cause seems unfortunate.  Why does everything in society have to be politicized?  Why does everyone have to take a side on issues like this one; why does this have to become another battlefield in the cultural wars?

Michael Sam was a superb college football player who may or may not be a good fit in the NFL.  Tony Dungy was a wonderful coach, a good man, a committed Christian, and a conservative male who, approaching 60, may not be entirely comfortable with gay people.  (And we don’t even know that).  Let’s all stop shouting and tweeting and opining, and let the kid play football, and let Dungy do what he does brilliantly, comment on football games.  Can’t we figure out a way to get along?