Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bond Trial: What Was the Point, Again?

If you sat through Wednesday's news that disgraced slugger Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice in the federal government's case against BALCO (which was also a symbolic trial of the entire Steroids Era in baseball) and wondered what the point of the whole thing was, you're not alone.

Prosecutors couldn't get Bonds on perjury -- the jury deadlocked on all three charges against him. They only managed to get the obstruction of justice charge because jurors felt Bonds evaded questions during his grand jury testimony.

By that logic ... shouldn't Dick Cheney be behind bars?

So, with a potentially bogus obstruction of justice conviction -- which carries a maximum of sentence of 10 years in prison, even though Bonds is unlikely to face jail time -- and what's likely to be a length appeals process (oh, and the government can file the perjury charges again, if it so chooses), the question begs asking: what's the point?

Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, takes the whole thing to task in his recent column, The Great American Witch-Hunt: How Barry Bonds Became a Convicted Felon. A snippet:

As BALCO founder Victor Conte—who is no friend of Bondssaid to USA Today, "This verdict absolutely makes no sense to me. Of all of these counts, the one that makes the least sense to me is the obstruction charge. Tell me how there was obstruction of justice. This is all about the selected persecution of Barry Bonds. This is not fair. I was the heavy in this. I accepted full responsibility and the consequences and went to prison. How is that obstruction? Doesn't make sense.”

It doesn’t. After all the public money, drama, and hysterics, this is what we’re left with. He was “evasive." Keep in mind that we live in a country where the US Department of Justice has not pursued one person for the investment banking fraud that cratered the US economy in 2008. Not one indictment has been issued to a single Bush official on charges of ordering torture or lying to provoke an invasion of Iraq. Instead, we get farcical reality television like the US vs. Barry Bonds.

This was a trial where you longed for the somber dignity of a Judge Judy. Since Anderson wouldn’t talk, the government was left with two real witnesses: Kimberly Bell, Bond's mistress, brought in to discuss his sexual dysfunctions resulting from steroids, and Steve Hoskins, the business manager whom Bonds fired for alleged theft and fraud. But their real star was a once-anonymous IRS official named Jeff Novitsky, who has proudly seen Bonds as an all-consuming obsession, US Constitution be damned.

Look, I'm no Bonds apologist. But doesn't anyone else find a bit strange that the majority of the government's focus in prosecuting steroid use in professional sports has largely focused in on him? Is it because he's the sport's all-time leading home run hitter? Someone who allegedly manufactured his numbers in a sport where numbers mean more than anything?

Is it because Bonds was never friendly with the media? Is it because, heaven forbid, Bonds is black? Where's this level of outrage and condemnation for someone like Roger Clemens or Mark McGwire? The former is accused of taking steroids and lying about it; the latter has finally admitted he juiced.

I know Clemens will have his day in court, but the outrage surrounding his case doesn't even come close to Bonds. But think about this ... if the federal government wants to get in the business of prosecuting steroids in baseball (which, as Zirin pointed out, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said they wouldn't do), why not focus more on the dealers who supplied the drugs?

Why not focus on the owners and Major League Baseball officials who looked the other way as players bulked up, balls went flying out of ballparks and more money flowed in than anyone knew what to do with? They're just as culpable as the players in this, if not more so.

Frankly, the government has gibber fish to dry than a player who was a surefire Hall of Famer before greed and jealousy led him to take performance-enhancing drugs. While the federal government has been pouring in millions of dollars to prosecute Bonds, not one grand jury has convened to investigate the financial firms who led us into economic collapse.

Tank the economy, get a pass and a bailout. Take steroids to hit a baseball farther, and face potential jail time.

Doesn't that seem screwed up to anyone?

Monday, March 28, 2011

VCU Run Could Be Bad News For NCAA Tourney

As much as I love watching the underdog bust everyone's brackets in the NCAA Tournament, this year's Cinderella story might wind up doing more harm than good in the long run.

I don't just say that because Virginia Commonwealth, which is advancing to the Final Four for the first time ever, is the bitter rival of my alma mater, Old Dominion. There is a little bitterness there, but most of that is directed at Butler, which beat ODU in the first round (or second round, whatever) on a last-second play.

I begrudgingly root for VCU this time of year because it helps the conference; the more VCU wins, the better the Colonial Athletic Association looks, and the more money it gets.

But in terms of the tournament itself, I fear what this run will create. This was the first year in which the tournament had a 68-team field, including what's called the "First Four" -- four play-in games in Dayton, Ohio the Tuesday before the rest of the tournament starts.

VCU was among the eight teams playing in the First Four, by virtue of being on the last bubble teams selected. How close were the Rams to not being in the tournament? Virtually every college basketball analyst -- particularly two balding members of the ESPN team -- blasted the decision, even without evidence to back up their claims.

But VCU beat USC in the First Four, then throttled both Georgetown and Purdue to reach the Sweet 16. From there, the Rams took out Florida State in overtime before stunning No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. VCU advanced to its first Final Four, and head coach Shaka Smart is looking at a massive payday, whether he leaves VCU or not.

The run has been great for the CAA; receiving three bids for the first time ever -- league champion ODU was a No. 9 seed and George Mason received a No. 8 seed as an at-large -- the CAA had to prove it deserved them.

ODU fell to Butler at the buzzer -- you know, the same Butler team that's making its second straight Final Four -- and George Mason upended Villanova in its first game before being run over by No. 1 seed Ohio State.

But VCU matched the 2006 George Mason team, becoming the second CAA team to make the Final Four. Which, like I said, is great for both the school and the conference ... but not the tournament.

Before the field expanded to 68 teams, the NCAA seriously considered expanding the field to 96 teams. Some believe such expansion is an inevitability; coaches, particularly coaches from schools that seem to be on the bubble every year, believe there are enough good teams to fill out a 96-team field and still have a compelling, competitive tournament.

VCU's run only helps their cause.

The analysts who argued against VCU's inclusion pointed to such schools as Colorado and Virginia Tech as more deserving of a bid -- despite Colorado not having any notable out-of-conference wins and Virginia Tech once again playing a cupcake non-conference schedule (and refusing to play such schools as ODU, George Mason and VCU).

Sure, the Hokies beat Duke, but they followed that up by losing to Boston College (at home) and Clemson. The Rams, meanwhile, had wins over Wichita State, George Mason and ODU -- and advanced to the title game of the CAA Tournament.

Would Colorado or Virginia Tech gone on a run like this if they had been given a bid? There's no way to tell; the tournament is so unpredictable anymore that hundreds of thousands of brackets were toast before the end of the first weekend.

But VCU's historic run validates those who feel the bubble teams should be let in by virtue of an even more expanded field. If the 67th- or 68th-best team in the country can make it from the First Four to the Final Four, then who's to say the 84th-best team in the nation can't get hot and win a few games?

I'd like to think a 96-team NCAA field is not an inevitability; maybe I'm naive. But I think there are ways to make the the 68-team field better before we even think about expanding the field again. For example, I'd like to see the committee stop putting automatic bid earners in the First Four; make the First Four a series of games between the "last four in" and the "last four out;" winners get 12 seeds.

But if we do wind up with a 96-team field in the coming years, we may have the Rams to thank for that. VCU and the CAA -- and even the NCAA -- might win in the short term, but in the long term, this run could prove disastrous for the tournament.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

BYU Gets One Right

Let me preface this entry by saying that I'm not a Mormon, and I'm not entirely familiar with the details of that particular spiritual path. However, I am aware of Brigham Young University as a prominent private Mormon institution, one with a strict honor code.

How strict? Well, aside from the commonplace ban on such things as drugs and alcohol, BYU forbids its students from drinking coffee or tea. The school also forbids foul language. Between the coffee and bad words, I'd be kicked out within the first week, if not the first day.

BYU also forbids pre-marital sex. Whatever your feelings on that particular subject, BYU is a private school, and as such, has the right to impose this restriction on its students.

This became a national matter on Tuesday, when No. 3 BYU (27-3, 13-2 Mountain West) dismissed Brandon Davies from the team for the rest of the season for violating the school's Honor Code. On Wednesday, it was reported that Davies had sex with his girlfriend.

On the surface, it sounds ridiculous -- kicking the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer off the team because he slept with a woman with whom he was in a committed relationship. And in 98 percent of the schools in this country, it would be ridiculous. But BYU, with its Mormon principles, explicitly tells all students -- athlete or not -- that pre-marital sex is forbidden.

So if you go to BYU and get caught having sex, without a wedding ring, then you're at the mercy of whatever punishment the school deems appropriate.

What Davies' departure means for the rest of the Cougars' season is unknown -- though BYU looked lost in its first game without him on Wednesday, an 82-64 loss at home to New Mexico. But the Cougars were in line for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the team had a good shot at making a deep run, if not win the national title.

This suspension could jeopardize that. A lot of others schools forgive far greater breaches of policy, and even law, in order for their star players to stay on the field or court at the most important part of the season -- but not BYU.

Whatever you think of the school, or the Mormon faith, or the BYU Honor Code, the school at least deserves credit for sticking to its values, even if it means ruining what could've been a special season. Davies violated that code, and he deserves to be punished for it -- not because what he did was necessarily "wrong," but because the school made it clear from Day One what the policy was, and he went against it.

If more schools stuck to their standards like BYU, college athletics would be far better off. I'm not saying every school should outlaw coffee or pre-marital sex -- A) it's a Mormon thing, and B) it would be impossible to keep all those 18- to 21-year-olds off each other -- but if a school has a set of rules and standards, it should adhere to them, even when the offender happens to be really good at a big-time sport.

BYU could've looked the other way and let this magical season play out; instead, the school stuck to its guns and punished Davies. No matter what becomes of the Cougars' season, at least the school still has its honor and credibility.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An NBA Reality Check

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, this past summer to join the Miami Heat, people seemingly took offense. The reaction was similar through the first half of the NBA season, when Carmelo Anthony made it clear he wanted to get out of Denver once his contract was up this season, preferring to join the New York Knicks -- who signed Amar'e Stuodamire in the offseason.

With a "Big Three" already in place with the Boston Celtics -- though one could argue it's a Big Four, adding point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix -- recent moves seem to point toward a consolidation of talent within a few of the league's teams.

Especially if you believe the rumor about Dwight Howard opting out of his deal next year, leaving Orlando and joining ... the Los Angeles Lakers?

That may be true, or it might not be; it's worth noting that Kevin Durant has re-upped with Oklahoma City (small market) in the offseason and the team with the best record in the league is also from a small market (San Antonio).

What gets me is how everyone's screaming like it's the Apocalypse, accusing players of having too much power and holding their organizations hostage. I don't follow the NBA religiously -- I prefer college basketball -- but I follow it enough to have a general idea of what's going on. What I've seen in the last several months is a case of free agent athletes exercising those rights to play where they want.

James and Bosh were free agents after last season; they both had the right to choose where they wanted to play. Dwyane Wade was also a free agent, but he chose to stay in Miami. Stoudamire was a free agent as well -- one the Phoenix Suns chose not to re-sign, so he decided to sign with the Knicks.

The Utah Jazz decided not to re-sign Carlos Boozer after last season, so he signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz also decided to part ways with point guard Deron Williams, sending him to New Jersey.

In the case of Stoudamire, Boozer and Williams, the decision rest with the teams, not the players. James, Bosh and Anthony have also exercised their rights as free agents; in the case of Anthony, he told Denver that this season, his last under his current contract, would likely be his last with the Nuggets -- unlike James, who waited until after the season to decide and held an hour-long ESPN special in which he ripped out Cleveland's heart on national television.

So with that knowledge, what was Denver to do? Let the season play out as it was, watch Anthony leave at the end of the year and get nothing in return? Or work around the league to see if they could get a trade done, just so the team could get something in return?

Denver would never get equal value, but the trade was better than just letting Anthony walk.

Just ask the Cavaliers.

The fact of the matter is, free agents have the right to go wherever they please once their contracts have expired. Sometimes they give notice of their intentions (Anthony), sometimes they don't (James, Bosh). And especially in the NBA, the stars drive the interest and the business of the sport.

When Anthony decided to play for the Knicks, it wasn't just because he'd be going home again; it was a business move. Let's face it, New York City is basketball-crazy, and if Anthony helps resurrect the Knicks, then the team and the league benefit.

Likewise for the league's other major markets. This isn't to say the small-market teams are hopeless -- San Antonio and Oklahoma City are perfect examples of viable, competitive teams in small markets -- but the NBA is a far more viable and interesting product when the New Yorks, Miamis, Chicagos, Bostons and Los Angeles of the world are competitive.

In reality, what's happening in the NBA today is no different than it's ever been; it just seems that way, given the evolution of 24-hour sports media over the last decade. It's really business as usual in the NBA, and -- pending CBA battles aside -- the league is as healthy and popular as ever.

You want something to bitch about? The NFL's about to have a lockout; try there.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Is Pettitte a Hall of Famer?

With the expectation that New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte will announce his retirement on Friday, the question's already being asked: is he a Hall of Famer?

ESPN's Jayson Stark -- whom you could argue is a far greater authority on baseball than me (since, you know, he gets paid to write about it) -- says not quite. But I think the question is a bit complicated, and even as I write this, I'm not entirely sure of the answer.

First, the arguments in favor of Pettitte's potential induction into Cooperstown:

-A .635 winning percentage over 13 seasons.

-19 postseason wins, the most all-time.

-Five World Series championships, all with the Yankees.

-Three-time All-Star.

-Had two 20-win seasons.

Now, the arguments against induction:

-While his 240-138 career record is stellar, many use 300 wins as a benchmark for consideration. It might be unfair, but that's how some voters feel.

-Pettitte never won the Cy Young award.

-Pettitte was never considered the ace of his staff -- or even the number two guy in the rotation.

-Oh, and he's also an admitted performance-enhancing drug user.

That last reason is perhaps why the question of Pettitte's HoF candidacy is so complex. If it simply boiled down to his numbers, the argument would likely be more cut and dry. Those in favor would point to his five World Series rings, while detractors would point out his lack of a Cy Young or the fact that he was often the third- or fourth-best pitcher on his staff.

If Pettitte were a football player with five Super Bowl rings, his bust for Canton would be carved out the day he retired. That's how important championships are in the NFL; in baseball, though, the World Series ring isn't the dealbreaker. Yeah, it's nice that Pettitte has five rings, but baseball voters want more than that.

But the PED issue is really where I think this argument will be settled. In the last few years, we've seen Hall voters punish former players tainted by PED allegations. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro can personally attest to this; McGwire and Palmeiro have received little support among voters, while Bonds -- if he ever makes his retirement official -- will likely face the same wrath.

Likewise for Roger Clemens.

But Pettitte, who was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, differs from the above players in one key respect; when accused of using, he came forward and owned up to it. Pettitte held a press conference, admitted that he used HGH and apologized for it. Afterward, virtually everyone dropped the issue and Pettitte was able to go about his career.

Bonds, Palmeiro, McGwire and Clemens did not do this. Palmeiro was defiant, before and after his failed drug test. Bonds and Clemens are fighting everyone they see to prove their innocence, even in a court of law, evidence be damned. McGwire wasn't so much defiant as reclusive, and though he did admit steroid use in January 2010, it was too little, too late.

Would voters be more lenient on Pettitte because he came forward and admitted his mistake? Hard to tell, but I'd be interested to see how many votes he gets his first year on the ballot. If Pettitte does get in, he won't be a first-ballot selection. But if he receives a great deal more votes than other players connected to PEDs, then we'll have any idea how big an issue it is with the voters.

Personally? I say you either consider everyone from the Steroids Era, or you consider no one. You can't pick and choose who you vote for and who you don't; even with positive drug tests and confessions and other evidence, we'll never know with 100 percent certainty who used and who didn't.

We could look at a guy and know in our hearts he used, yet he could be totally clean. Then there could be a guy we ignore, think there's no way he uses, yet he's as dirty as a middle school gym shower.

You just don't know. So you either consider everyone from this era, or no one. You can't pick and choose, make a statement over one particular player while giving others a pass.

From a numbers standpoint, I think Pettitte's a Hall of Famer. The five World Series rings and the MLB-record 19 postseason wins are what do it for me; not that 240 career wins is a total to sneeze at, but Pettitte made a career out of being unhittable when it mattered most. If we measure greatness in terms of winning, in terms of winning championships, then Pettitte is a no-brainer.

He wasn't the most prolific strikeout guy. He never lit up the radar gun in triple digits. He wasn't a guy who'd go out there and give you 20 wins year after year after year. But he helped teams get to the playoffs, and once they did, he turned it up and more often than not, helped lead his team to the promised land.

Is there any other sport where a player with five championship rings wouldn't be inducted? The NFL? NBA? Hockey? NASCAR?

Tell me Jimmie Johnson's not a Hall of Famer.

The PED debate is a worthy one that I think we need to have in order to truly secure the future of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But if we ignore the PED use and simply look at Pettitte's performance on the mound, his accolades speak for themselves.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Five By Five

In light of Jimmie Johnson's fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title on Sunday (check out more in my NASCAR blog here), I offer a list of other five-peats throughout the history of major sports.

Just food for thought.

NBA: The Boston Celtics won eight consecutive championships from 1959 to 1966.

NCAA Men's Basketball: Jon Wooden's UCLA team won seven straight NCAA titles from 1967 to 1973.

NHL: The Montreal Canadiens (the New York Yankees of hockey) won five straight championships from 1956 to 1960.

MLB: The New York Yankees (the New York Yankees of baseball) won five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953.

Formula 1: Michael Schumacher won five straight world championships from 2000 to 2004.

NHRA: John Force won 10 straight Funny Car championships from 1993 to 2002.

NFL: No team has ever won five straight Super Bowl titles. No team has ever won more than two consecutive Super Bowls.

Just some perspective for you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Don't Wanna Go On a Rant Here, But ...

Something that's been really bugging me lately that I need to get off my chest:

Perhaps you heard that the 2010 World Series -- a five-game affair pitting the surprising San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers -- tied an all-time low in television ratings. Only the 2008 World Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies struggled as mightily for viewers.

Oddly enough, Game 5 of this year's World Series beat Monday Night Football -- a game that featured Peyton Manning, no less.

Still, the news regarding this year's World Series ratings upsets me, but not because I'm a staunch baseball lover who thinks everyone should embrace the game or be subject to eternal ridicule simply for not "getting it." No, it bothers me because it illustrates once again that as a nation, sports fans are a bunch of hypocrites.

Think about it; how often do you hear fans complaining, on sports talk radio and on message boards and in everyday conversation, about how today's sports media (ESPN, specifically) only focuses on a handful of teams -- you know, the Yankees, the Mets, the Red Sox, the Cardinals, the Cubs, the Phillies ... you get the idea.

"Enough with the big-market teams!" they shout. "We've had it with Yankees-Red Sox!" they exclaim (maybe from rooftops, I don't know). "There are other teams out there!" they howl -- while wearing a cap supporting the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates.

These fans holler and moan when big-market teams are given nationally broadcast games and the lion's share of attention on shows like SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Yet when the game's most storied event -- the World Series -- features two teams that don't get the bulk of the publicity -- like the Giants and Rangers -- do they tune in?

Apparently not.

I'm gonna let all these whiny baseball fans in on a little secret. You know why ESPN and the others shove Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies down our collective throats from March through October? You know why ESPN is more likely to show us Yankees-White Sox than Royals-Athletics?, or Phillies-Cardinals instead of Rockies-Brewers?

Because people watch. The ratings speak for themselves. When ESPN shows a Yankees game, the network gets outstanding ratings -- which draws in advertisers, which brings in revenue. So not only do the whiners not watch the new teams, they turn around and watch Yankees-Red Sox, the very teams they bitch about!

You want television to stop covering the Yankees so much? Stop watching their games. If the ratings swing away from the Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies to other teams, then ESPN and the others will follow suit.

Baseball fans, you may say you want other teams to get the attention, but you had a shot to make good on that desire a few weeks ago, and you didn't do it. You could've tuned in en masse to watch the Giants and the Rangers to prove that baseball is in fact relevant outside of a handful of major markets ... but you didn't.

Which makes you damn hypocrites.