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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Post-NCAA Penalties?

Given all the recent noise regarding student-athletes accepting illegal benefits, largely in the form of money from player agents looking to land the next up-and-coming NFL stud, the NCAA, NFL and several representatives for both collegiate and professional players are meeting to discuss potential penalties for players who lose their NCAA eligibility.

One of the ideas on the table is to impose fines upon players who lost eligibility once they're selected in the NFL Draft. Another idea involved suspending the player in his rookie season -- maybe as many as six to eight games.

According to reports, progress is being made on this front and the group would meet again in a month.

On the one hand, I applaud this initiative -- it's nice to see steps being taken to punish those who actually break NCAA rules, rather than levying penalties on the program -- and players who did nothing wrong -- after the offending party has left (see: USC, Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll).

A monetary fine, so long as it's levied after a player signs his NFL contract and taken before the agent gets his cut, seems fair. If a player takes money he shouldn't, having money taken away upon the beginning of his professional career looks like an appropriate measure.

But if we start suspending players for these infractions, that's where I have a problem. If the suggestion of six- to eight-game suspensions for NFL rookies who were deemed ineligible by the NCAA comes to pass, the league will essentially be saying that taking money from an agent is worse than the first positive test for a performance-enhancing drug (four-game suspension) or a violation of the league's personal conduct policy (Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only served four games due to his alleged sexual assault).

Which is worse to you? Roethlisberger allegedly forcing himself on a woman, or a student-athlete taking money from an agent?

I've already made my opinion regarding student-athletes accepting illegal benefits known, but I understand and applaud the NCAA and NFL's collective effort to address the issue. Hopefully, the punishment will be fair and reflect the infraction -- if we start suspending players because they took money, there's no telling how teams would operate in the draft.

Do you really want to take that star wide receiver in the first round if you know he has to sit the first six games? All because he took money, while a star cornerback from another team skates through despite three failed drug tests and an arrest?

The effort and the intention is admirable; I just hope the consequences don't get as out of control as the issue the solution is trying to fix.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

The hubbub this past week over the NFL's more rigid enforcement of rules against helmet-to-helmet hits would be laughable, if the subject didn't have such potentially dire consequences. After a rash of helmet-to-helmet hits throughout the league this past Sunday -- resulting in fines for three players -- and the paralyzing of a Rutgers University football player on Saturday, the league decided it had to step in and lay down the proverbial hammer.

To hear players, current and former, talk, this would kill the NFL as we know it. Instead of the hard-hitting game that has become the most popular in America, Commissioner Roger Goodell was seeking to turn the NFL into a two-hand touch league.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison, one of the players fined, threatened to retire, arguing the NFL was no longer allowing him to play the game the only way he knew how. Thankfully, he wised up on Thursday and returned to his team.

Given recent revelations regarding concussions and head injuries, there isn't much the league can do outside of stepping up punishment for these hits. These hits aren't just dangerous for the recipients, either; just look at the hit on Desean Jackson of the Eagles on Sunday. He sustained a concussion, but so did the guy who hit him.

The NFL can't have players launching into each other helmet-first. The helmet is for protection, not a weapon; coaches from Pee Wee to the NFL teach that players should lead with their shoulder pad, aiming for the offensive player's chest area. Aiming for the head, or leading with one's helmet, is what the NFL is aiming for.

The league isn't trying to legislate hitting out of the game.

Is the NFL overreacting? Perhaps; after all, not every helmet-to-helmet hit is intentional. But wouldn't you rather the league overreact than under-react? What if the league did nothing, then we find ourselves watching a player's career end because a hit paralyzed him?

What if, Gods forbid, a player died on the field? That would do more harm to the NFL than any work stoppage ever could.

This isn't even taking into account the long-term health effects of brain injuries. The NFL's benefits package for former players leaves a bit to be desired -- particularly for the players who were in the league before the big-money contracts -- and we're just now seeing how repeated concussions can have consequences down the road.

Sure, Troy Aikman and Steve Young have made nice lives for themselves following their concussion-riddled playing careers, but what about guys like Ricky Waters, who committed suicide last year after suffering from what doctors considered concussion-induced dementia?

The players do have a point in this regard: they know the risks of playing football. They know what can happen on the field, and no one makes them play. They understand any play can be their last, and they're okay with that.

But the NFL has a responsibility to ensure its players are as safe as possible; like auto racing, football will never be 100 percent safe, but that doesn't mean every possible safety measure shouldn't be employed. If you make every effort to keep things from happening, and they do anyway, then so be it.

But the NFL can't afford to have something happen because of the league's negligence. In this instance, being over-reactive is far better than sitting back and doing nothing at all.

The players would do well to mind that and keep their mouths shut.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disturbing? Yes. Shocking? No.

This week's cover story in Sports Illustrated might surprise some, and others will point to it as further proof of the deterioration of the concept of collegiate student-athletes as amateurs.

Count me among the latter.

"Confessions of an Agent," where former player agent Josh Luchs admits that he paid student-athletes throughout his career for the express purpose of signing them once they transitioned to the NFL, did not catch me off-guard. Anyone who's been watching ESPN over the past few months knows of the agent scandals at North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama -- and those are just the schools reported on.

Anyone who's been paying attention knows Florida head football coach Urban Meyer and Alabama head football coach Nick Saban lambasted agents -- the latter even went so far as to call them pimps.

Look ... are there agents who seek to take advantage of student-athletes for their own financial and career benefit? Absolutely, and they are a pox on both big-time college athletics and the professional leagues that benefit from their talents. But things aren't nearly that cut-and-dry -- as Luchs pointed out.

We'll speak mostly about college football and basketball players, since those sports generate the majority of a school's athletic revenue and public exposure -- and those student-athletes are the ones most likely to use those talents to secure a multi-million contract (of which agents would get a healthy cut).

Let's face it: agents aren't beating down doors looking to scoop up the star field hockey goalie. They do beat down the door for the star quarterback or point guard.

When it comes to the big-time athletes in the big-time programs, you're talking about student-athletes who are far less student than athlete. They don't necessarily choose college because of a desire to receive a degree; it's because they see college as a way to hone the athletic abilities they've spent their entire young lives practicing and find a successful life in a professional league that will give them millions of dollars.

Many of these student-athletes come from rough backgrounds, growing up without much money. Growing up in poverty, some of these student-athletes see athletics as a way out -- if a child gets good enough at football, he'll get that scholarship to USC, then he'll eventually land in the NFL as a first-round pick.

One big-ass signing bonus later, the family's poverty problems are over.

Imagine yourself as one such student-athlete. You did in fact receive that full scholarship to USC. Your tuition, room and board and textbooks are all provided free of charge, but you don't have money for basic living expenses. You can't afford to buy food, you can't afford to take your girlfriend to a movie.

And because your schedule is full with classes, practices, travel dates and games, you can't go out and get a part-time job. Meanwhile, the university rakes in millions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandise sales and TV revenue -- all because of your talents on the football field.

But you never see any of that money yourself.

Now, say Luchs came up to you and said he would give you $1,500 a month until you graduate or decide to declare yourself for the NFL Draft. You know it's wrong in terms of student-athlete regulations, you know it's an NCAA violation, but your bank account is in the red and you're not sure where you'll get your next meal.

Tell me you'd turn down the money. Say to me, with as straight a face as possible, that you would honestly turn down that money.

You wouldn't. You know you wouldn't. It doesn't make you a bad person, and it doesn't make Luchs a bad guy; he's simply doing his job in a climate where that sort of thing is not only permissible, it's expected. You're not a bad person, either, because hey -- you need to eat. And after all you've given to USC, after all the money it's made off your athletic exploits, don't you think you deserve a little something too?

This is the argument made by those who feel big-time student-athletes should be paid. The argument flies in the face of the NCAA's contention that student-athletes are amateurs, but the NCAA's regulations have created an environment where that amateur status is flimsy at best.

I'm not saying give these kids $20,000 a year; you don't have to pay these student-athletes a lot. Simply add a $2,000 stipend per semester to each student-athlete's scholarship that goes toward food and other living expenses. Universities pay for everything but living expenses, so isn't it only fair if they do?

Particularly when these schools rake in millions of dollars because of their student-athletes' talents. Especially when a football team makes a BCS bowl game ($$$$!) or advance in the NCAA Tournament ($$$$!).

Coaches and athletic directors get raises when athletic success brings in millions of dollars to schools. It's time to let the student-athletes have a cut. It won't solve all the problems when it comes to agents paying athletes, but it would help.

Agents aren't bad people, and neither are student-athletes. They're merely operating in a corrupt system that is unsustainable if we are to continue the charade that student-athletes are in fact amateurs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Roy Halladay = MAN

Just how impressive was Phillies ace Roy Halladay's no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Philadelphia on Wednesday? Consider:

-Wednesday's start was the first postseason start of Halladay's career; he never made the playoffs while in Toronto.

-The no-hitter was just the second in postseason history -- and the first since Don Larson's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

-Halladay already threw a perfect game -- the first of his career -- earlier this season.

-Did I mention first career postseason start?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Quick Hits

-Hey, look! Another cyclist has tested positive for performance enhancing drugs! Are you surprised?

-On a related note, anyone remember a time when eating bad beef just made you sick?

-In light of columnist Jay Mariotti's sentence for misdemeanor battery charges on Thursday, maybe it's time for ESPN to mute him ... permanently.

-Maybe LeBron James is right; maybe race does play a part in the backlash against him since he decided to leave Cleveland. Or here's a thought ... maybe we just think you acted like a douche in making your decision.

-Who needs Big Ben? Not the Steelers, who are 3-0 without their Super Bowl-winning quarterback and could go unbeaten during Roethlisberger's suspension if they beat Baltimore on Sunday.

-Who would've thought two years ago that Michael Vick would be more highly regarded in the NFL than Roethlisberger? Man, how times change ...

-I really hope Boise State wins the national championship this season -- if nothing else, it will finally expose the BCS for the sham it is.

-I know I'm behind on this, but ... am I the only one creeped out by ESPN broadcasting high school football games? What's next, Pop Warner Thursday on

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blog Re-Launch!

In honor of the resurrection of this blog (it's been dead and back more times than Buffy Summers. Or Jean Grey.), I offer random tidbits from the world of sports.

As always, for NASCAR insight, visit my NASCAR blog, Stuck in the Pits.

Naive Much: New Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb said on Tuesday that he expects cheers when he returns to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday as the Redskins face the Philadelphia Eagles. Considering how Eagles fans booed McNabb when he was drafted -- and practically every game since, even as McNabb took the team to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl -- I don't see it. If they booed McNabb when he was wearing Eagles green, what makes him think they won't now that he's wearing burgundy and gold?

Crowd Control: Was it wrong for Evan Longoria and David Price to criticize people in Tampa Bay for not showing up for Rays games as the team closes in on a playoff berth (clinched Tuesday night over Baltimore)? Probably ... but that doesn't make them wrong. I understand the economy sucks, I get that the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area might not be the most baseball-friendly place in the world. I even get that Tropicana Field is a dump -- but the Rays might win the AL East, clinch home field and advance to the World Series for the second time in three years. Where is everyone?

Backing Boise: I don't care that Virginia Tech lost to James Madison in the second week of the season; nor do I care that Boise State didn't defeat Oregon State by 5,000 points this past Saturday. As far as I'm concerned, the Broncos are still one of the top five teams in the country, and if they run the table, they will deserve a shot at the BCS title. Unfortunately, the way the BCS works, unless Alabama and/or Ohio State stumble along the way, Boise State will likely be shut out again. The Broncos have done everything asked of them, scheduling tough games and winning them, yet they keep getting the shaft.

Moving: In light of the recent suicide of the Denver Broncos' Kenny McKinley, I forward you to an incredibly moving column from Woody Paige of the Denver Post. I know Paige is known for his antics on ESPN's Around the Horn, but he reveals a deep part of himself in an attempt to make sense of McKinley's tragic death, and the result is a hard-hitting piece that everyone should read. Whether you know someone who's committed suicide, suspect someone you love might or have had those thoughts yourself, please ... read this.

Friday, July 9, 2010

LeBron to Miami; Cleveland Implodes

So ... that happened.

LeBron James announced on Thursday night -- in a contrived, made-for-TV special on ESPN -- that he will be playing for the Miami Heat from the 2010-11 season onward. James will be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, his hometown team, to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach.

There a lot of angles to discuss here, from the concept of the ESPN special to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's sophomoric response, but we'll start from a pure basketball standpoint. Depending on who you talk to, James is the best player in the NBA today. Even those who argue Kobe Bryant is the game's best player acknowledge James' otherworldly ability.

Others still argue that James and Bryant are 1 and 1-a.

Taking that into account, I have a hard time imagining why James would go to Miami. I understand he's friends with Wade and Bosh, and that they enjoyed playing with each other during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But for a player of James' stature, someone who calls himself King James, to go to a team that already has an alpha-male superstar ... doesn't that seem a little off to you?

Make no mistake: the Miami Heat are still, and will likely always be, Wade's team. He stayed, he's already won a title for that organization. Wade is the Miami Heat. No one -- not Bosh, not James -- is going to upend that. James is leaving Cleveland to be a sidekick. He's going to be Robin to Wade's Batman.

James has decided he'd rather be Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan.

The new Big Three could win three titles in Miami, which would give James three more rings than he had with the Cavaliers, but he'd always be one behind Wade, and people wouldn't forget that James became a sidekick in order to win.

Any other option would've probably been more favorable to James from a legacy standpoint. Whether he stayed in Cleveland, or he went to Chicago or New York or New Jersey -- hell, even the Clippers -- he would've still been the alpha male superstar, and if that team won a title with James, his legacy would be cemented.

There's also the matter that the Bulls were the best team for James basketball-wise, but that's a moot topic at this point.

No doubt Cleveland fans are upset this morning -- as well they should be. But I can't help but wonder how much of the angst is due to the fact that James left, and how much of it is directed at how he left. To an extent, anger toward James for leaving the hometown Cavaliers is expected, but I honestly believe the ESPN special had a lot to do with it.

Think about it: one thing to tell Cleveland you're leaving, another thing entirely to tell them you're leaving during a nationally-televised, one-hour special that was pitched by your representatives. Not that ESPN is completely innocent in this narcissistic display, but the network has business decisions to make -- and considering the interest surrounding James, ESPN knew how high the ratings would be.

Don't tell me you wouldn't have aired the special. You'd be lying through your teeth.

James looks really bad in all of this -- I think his reputation took somewhat of a hit because of how he presented himself and how he decided to announce his decision. There are consequences for that, and James is going to have to deal with them. He might very well be the most-hated man in Cleveland aside from Art Modell now, and he's got to deal with that.

But Gilbert clearly did himself and his franchise no favors with an open letter he wrote to fans on Thursday night. You would think someone who owns and operates a multi-million dollar business would know better than to let the emotion of the moment take over them like that. If I'm new head coach Byron Scott or any of the players on that team, I'm not feeling that comfortable today -- and it's not just because of James' decision.

Think about it: would you want to play for a guy who absolutely flies off the handle when he loses a player, even if his beef is legitimate? Owners of professional franchises are supposed to be more professional than this, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Cavaliers, already devoid of appeal for free agents, have even more trouble bringing in players.

Remember, just because you can, that doesn't necessarily mean you should. Both James and Gilbert would do well to remember that down the road.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

NCAA Expansion: Better Than Expected!

Even as the NCAA celebrated one of the best Division I Men's Basketball Tournaments in recent memory last month, there was wide speculation that the event would expand from the current 65-team format to a whopping 96 (!) teams.

Coaches sighed in relief at the thought of saving their jobs by making the watered-down field, and NCAA executives, alongside university presidents and athletic directors, practically drooled over the idea of all that new revenue.

Everyone else shuddered at the thought and predicted the end of the world.

Well, we can put Armageddon to rest -- at least until 2012. The NCAA announced a new television deal on Thursday, unveiling a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting. Along with the new TV deal, it is expected that the NCAA will approve expanding the NCAA field to 68 teams -- three more than we have now.

The idea is thus: instead of having one opening-round game (or play-in game, as some call it), there would be four -- one for each region in the bracket. On paper, it's a wonderful thing -- and believe me when I say that I'm glad we're not looking at a 96-team monstrosity and brackets that take up two sheets of paper.

At least for now.

But the opening-round game has been fraught with problems since its inception in 2001. Under the current format, teams with automatic bid from low-major conferences -- the MEAC, SWAC, Patriot League, Big South, et al -- are relegated to the opening-round game, and if they win, they're rewarded with a blowout at the hands of a No. 1 seed.

Why are we putting automatic bid winners in the opening round game? Why do we reward a Hampton or an Arkansas-Pine Bluff for a season's worth of hard work and success with such a slap in the face?

This year, APB -- the SWAC champions -- and Big South champion Winthrop were the opening-round participants. APB won that game, before getting blasted in the first round by eventual national champion Duke.

Is that really how we want to reward conference champions?

If a team wins its conference's automatic bid, they deserve one of the first 63 slots -- not a date in Dayton, Ohio two nights before the true madness begins. The opening-round game -- now games -- should be reserved for bubble teams.

If I had my way, I would take the last four teams in and the last four teams out, pair them up and let them have it out in the four opening-round games. The winners would then be awarded No. 12 seeds -- since that's where most bubble teams that get into the field are slotted now anyway.

But don't make the opening-round game an excuse to weed out the low-major teams who did nothing more than play by the rules set out for them.

I'm glad expansion won't be as large as previously expected; as it stands, the NCAA Tournament is as close to perfection as we get in sports. If anything, the NCAA should focus on trying to fix a postseason formula that doesn't work -- the Bowl Championship Series in football -- instead of tinkering with something that doesn't really need fixing.

I will say this, though, the new TV deal will result in a better television product, because it will do away with the regional coverage that CBS featured. No more missing your favorite team's game if you're out of the coverage area, and no more leaving one game in favor of another. Under the new deal, games will be shown live, in their entirety, on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV.

There's also talk of CBS and TBS alternating the Final Four every year.

So all in all, Thursday was a good day for college hoops fans. A 96-team field might still be on the horizon, and I still have major reservations with regards to the opening-round games, but an expansion from 65 to 68 teams will create a more balanced tournament field, and will do little to affect what has turned into one of sports' greatest events.