Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2019

A Predictable Result At An Unneeded Event

Team USA won the Presidents Cup this weekend. Given the relative talent on the American and International teams, that was the expected result from the four days of matches played at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on Australia’s south coast. But aside from Patrick Reed’s determined efforts to give arrogance physical form, there’s not much else for the golf media to report on in mid-December. So, between the need to fill that void and the added attention that comes with the U.S. squad being captained by Tiger Woods, Team USA’s 16-14 victory over the nominal hosts is being treated, in the golf world at least, as big news.

That the Presidents Cup, be it this edition or virtually all the previous twelve biennial stagings, doesn’t really deserve such treatment is evident for several reasons. First is the very reason for its existence. In the mid-90s there were no golfers clamoring for one more event on an already full schedule. But executives at the PGA Tour looked longingly at the publicity and revenue generated every other year by the Ryder Cup matches between the United States and Europe.

The stateside management of that exhibition is in the hands of the PGA of America, the national organization of teaching professionals which also sponsors the PGA Championship. Those matches had become highly competitive beginning in the 1980s, after the opposition for Team USA was expanded from just golfers representing Great Britain and Ireland to include all of the Continent. With that came a vastly higher public profile to matches that had been going on since 1927, mostly as a rather sedate and gentlemanly contest dominated by the U.S. Increased media attention in turn brought bigger television contracts, more sponsors clamoring for a role in the weekend’s proceedings, and, inevitably, lots and lots of cash. Anxious for a golden goose to call their own, the Tour’s leadership inserted the Presidents Cup into the golfing calendar for the years between Ryder Cup stagings, replacing Team Europe with an International squad that would be open to golfers from all non-European nations. It was, in short, a money grab; why let all those sponsorship and TV dollars sit idle every other year when they could be flowing into the PGA Tour’s bank account in Ponte Vedra?

What the Tour did not consider in its haste to cash in was that Ryder Cup history referenced above. Of the first twenty-five editions of the Ryder Cup, only three ended in defeat for Team USA. The event simply wasn’t competitive, because the depth of talent among American touring pros was far, far greater than among their counterparts from the British Isles. The spike in interest in the matches was directly tied to the decision to include golfers from mainland Europe, which was made at a time when players like Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal were coming into their prime and winning tournaments no matter where they teed it up. They in turn sparked interest in the game for succeeding generations, which has meant a steady flow of top-level Continental talent joining Britons from Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo to Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, and the irrepressible Ian Poulter. Four of the top ten golfers in this week’s Official World Rankings would be playing for Team Europe if this were a Ryder Cup year.

While there are many more countries that could send participants to the International Team for the Presidents Cup matches, that depth of talent has never existed among players from “the rest of the world.” After a star or two from Australia, and perhaps a familiar face from South Africa and another from Japan, the pedigree of the International squad has always dropped off precipitously. This year was no exception. Team USA sported five members currently ranked in the world’s top ten. That number would have been six, or half the team, but world number one Brooks Koepka pulled out of the matches with an injury.

His replacement was Rickie Fowler, ranked all the way down at number twenty-three. That’s one spot ahead of Matt Kuchar, the lowest ranked American walking Royal Melbourne this weekend. In contrast, only three members of the International Team ranked that high – Adam Scott at number eighteen, and Louis Oosthuizen and Hideki Matsuyama at twenty and twenty-one. Those three were also the only members of the supposed home squad recognizable to casual fans in this country.

Other players on the International Team, which had seven Cup rookies among its twelve members, hailed from locations as diverse as three different Asian countries, Canada, Mexico and Chile. Team golf may be a rare event at the professional level, but when it does occur camaraderie and connection among members of the squad is as vital as in any sport. On top of multiple language barriers and vast distances separating their home countries, players on the International Team at the Presidents Cup have no obvious external connection, like the European Union, to serve as even a starting point for team building. Many members of the supposed home team this weekend doubtless felt very far from home.

What is true today has been the case since the first matches in 1994, with predictable results. The U.S. won the inaugural Cup, held at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club south of Washington, D.C., by the lopsided score of 20-12. Only once in the years since has the International Team managed to post a victory. That was in 1998 at the same site as this weekend’s matches. Most times the outcome has not been close, so much so that this year’s result counts as one of the narrowest victory margins for Team USA.

But the one virtual certainty is that whether by two points or eight, Team USA is going to win. At best the International squad gets points for boldness. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer publicly lobbied to play Woods in the Sunday singles. Woods has eighty-two PGA Tour victories and fifteen major titles. Ancer has zero and zero. Of course, anything can happen in the course of eighteen holes. In golf as in all our sports there is a reason, as someone has been known to say, why they actually play the games. But Sunday on the first tee it was just Ancer and his clubs, not David and his sling. Even if his dream had come true, it was improbable in the extreme that Ancer’s teammates could have duplicated the feat up and down the rest of the singles pairings.

That reality, which shows no sign of changing, coupled with the stories about how his leadership and 3-0-0 performance on the course made this Presidents Cup a perfect bookend to a remarkable comeback year for playing captain Tiger Woods, provide the PGA Tour with a golden opportunity. It won’t happen, but the Tour should end this biennial non-competitive nonsense, and right now it could do so in tribute to Woods, whose leadership will never be equaled. If the Presidents Cup were gone, would anyone even notice?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2019

The Hall Of Fame Becomes A Better Place

Four years and $73 million for catcher Yasmani Grandal, the biggest free agent deal in Chicago White Sox history. From the Philadelphia Phillies, five years and $118 million for Zack Wheeler, a 29-year-old righthander who lost all of 2015 and 2016 to injury and who has never topped 200 innings of work. Then the record breaker, the Washington Nationals agreeing to seven years and $245 million to retain the services of World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg. On Monday that was the richest deal ever for a pitcher, both in terms of total dollars and average annual value. By Tuesday it was a former record, as after a few seasons of relative frugality the Yankees returned to being the Evil Empire, inking the top free agent of this offseason, righthander Gerrit Cole, to a nine-year contract worth $324 million. Suddenly, the Great Game’s economic balance, tilted so heavily in favor of management for the past few years, appears to be swinging back in the direction of the players.

If that is true – and while the news so far is promising, rendering a final judgment at this point in the offseason is a little like declaring division winners based on the standings on the Fourth of July – then while still grossly overdue, the timing of the vote by the Hall of Fame veterans committee will ultimately be seen as altogether appropriate. For amid these and other announcements of rich free agent contracts came the news that many fans had resigned themselves to never hearing. With exactly the requisite seventy-five percent of the committee’s support, Marvin Miller has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The mission statement of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to use its full name, sets the institution’s first job as preserving the sport’s history. In addition to preserving a permanent record of baseball’s story through its collections and building appreciation for the Great Game with exhibits and educational programs, the Hall honors individuals who had exceptional careers and non-players with significant achievements off the field. In the long history of the sport, no other individual who never once stood in a batter’s box or stepped onto a pitcher’s mound had an impact on the game like Miller’s.

Fans too young to remember the time can find it hard to grasp the economic realities of the sport in the late winter of 1966 when Miller, then an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers union, toured spring training camps seeking to be elected executive director of the Players Association. The players who voted Miller into a position he would hold until 1982 were tied to their clubs by baseball’s reserve clause. Aside from a small handful of stars, they had no ability to negotiate their salaries and their feeble association had no collective bargaining agreement. The major league minimum salary was $6,000, a number that had increased just once in two decades. Arbitration and free agency were, at most, mere concepts in Miller’s mind.

Marvin Miller changed all that, and in retrospect did so with astonishing speed. He won recognition of the MLBPA as a union and secured its first agreement with the owners. That two-year contract increased the minimum salary by more than forty percent, raised players’ expense allowance, and introduced arbitration for certain grievances. Every CBA that followed, and Miller negotiated the first five, expanded the rights of players. After Curt Flood’s lonely effort to fight the reserve clause through the courts, Miller followed the path laid out by the St. Louis Cardinals’ star and won the 1975 Seitz decision that finally eradicated the reserve clause and made free agency permanent. He wasn’t hesitant to use the ultimate union cudgel of job actions, which brought him plenty of public opprobrium but ultimately won further concessions from management. In time the economic rebalancing between players and owners that Miller was shaping in baseball spread to our other major sports.

Coverage of the contract announcements from the Owners’ Meetings in San Diego this week focused on the numbers – the millions in total value, the average annual salary and the length of each deal. But that there were any announcements to make was because of Miller’s leadership in the Players Association’s formative years. Fans in Washington were surely happy that Strasburg opted to continue to wear the only major league uniform he’s ever known. But that he had a choice whether to do so was because of Miller.

That legacy put Miller’s claim to a plaque in the Hall beyond dispute. It also made his election nearly impossible. Because of the Hall’s seventy-five percent threshold for election and the mixed membership of the various veterans committees that voted on his candidacy over the years, there was always going to be a bloc of voters with ties to the sport’s management side determined to deny Miller a spot in Cooperstown. Beginning in 2003 he was regularly on the veterans committee ballot and just as regularly fell short of election. In 2008, at the age of 92, Miller wrote to the Hall asking that he no longer be considered. But while he could never be ignored as the leader of the Players Association, the Hall chose not to honor his request. Seven times in all Miller was denied, even after his passing in 2012.

The pattern had repeated so many times that it became easy to assume it was permanent; that an institution dedicated to preserving the history of the Great Game would forever ignore someone with seminal influence on that story. But perhaps justice delayed is not always justice denied. Almost twenty years ago Hank Aaron said “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.” Now at last those doors have been battered down. In keeping with his stated wishes, his family has made it clear they will not participate in his induction ceremony next summer. But then it has always been the case that Marvin Miller didn’t need the Hall of Fame. Rather it is the Hall, if it is to be true to its mission, that has needed Marvin Miller.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 8, 2019

The Playoff Selection Committee Got Off Easy

Dammit. Less than two weeks ago pundits were pondering the distinct possibility that when all of college football’s regular season games had been played, the committee responsible for picking the four contestants advancing to this season’s College Football Playoff would be faced with an impossible situation, one in which the supporters of at least one and possibly a couple teams were going to be outraged when the names of the four participants did not include their squad. For those without a rooting interest, chaos is fun!

This is not to wish ill on the august members of the CFP selection committee. The seven present or former athletic directors who are joined by six other members including former coaches and players often have the unenviable task of disappointing some perfectly fine football team that had the misfortune of suffering a single loss to the wrong opponent at the wrong time. Two years ago, that team was Wisconsin. The Badgers opened the season ranked 9th in the AP poll, scored win after win to move steadily up, all the way to 3rd going into the Big 10 conference title game against Ohio State. But there Wisconsin stumbled, suffering their first loss 27-21 in what amounted to a final audition for the Playoff. Alabama also had one blemish on its record, but the Tide was idle during conference championship week after losing both the game and the SEC West crown to Auburn in the intrastate Iron Bowl one week earlier. The committee gave Alabama the nod, and Wisconsin fans howled with outrage. Of course, when Nick Saban’s team went on to beat first Clemson and then Georgia to win the national title, the committee members looked pretty smart.

But to the dismay of those of us in the cheap seats, no sooner had assorted writers at sites like laid out scenarios that would cause the committee to lay in extra supplies of Pepcid and Tums, than results on the field wound up paving the way for a final selection devoid of controversy. The potential for delicious chaos turned into bland and predictable order.

That process began on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when underdog Auburn claimed the Iron Bowl yet again, upsetting Alabama in a thoroughly entertaining shootout, 48-45. The result gave the Crimson Tide two losses on the season. Given ‘Bama’s impressive recent history and Saban’s constant lobbying for his squad, a one-loss Alabama team was still very much in the mix for a spot in the Playoff. But the second defeat finally pushed the Tide out of the Playoff for the first time since the current format was adopted for the 2014-15 season.

Then Ohio State won out, beating archrival Michigan in the final game of the regular season and once again handling Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship by rallying in the second half. The Badgers’ hopes had already been dented by a late season loss to Minnesota. The second loss erased Wisconsin from the board while the perfect record ensured the Buckeyes of a place as one of the chosen four.

SEC East champion Georgia was one of those four in the committee’s next to last rankings, but the Bulldogs had the very large task of beating LSU in the conference title tilt. Unfortunately, that job proved too great, eliminating the possibility of angry fans from other conferences denouncing the committee for either real or imagined SEC favoritism. Meanwhile both Oklahoma from the Big 12 and Utah from the Pac-12 had their sights set on a spot in one of the Playoff semifinals, to be contested this year on the Saturday before New Year’s at the Fiesta and Peach Bowls. Georgia’s loss opened the door for both schools, but only the Sooners were able to walk through after beating Baylor in overtime to win the Big 12, while the Utes were clobbered by the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship, a result that gave both division winners from that conference two losses on the season.

Taken together those results left just three teams from Power 5 conferences with undefeated records – LSU, Ohio State, and defending national champion Clemson from the ACC. As the only other one-loss squad from those conferences, Oklahoma was the easy pick as the fourth seed, completing the field for this season’s Playoff. If there is a team among the four that will take the field with a chip on its collective shoulder, that is certainly Clemson. Largely because of the association with the Atlantic Coast Conference the Tigers are seeded third, and it is true that as Power 5 football conferences go, the ACC has a lot of schools that field good basketball teams. Still, Dabo Swinney’s team has won the national championship two of the last three years, humiliated both Notre Dame and Alabama in winning last season, and now sports a twenty-eight-game winning streak. Seedings aside, it’s not surprising that in Las Vegas the opening line on the semifinal between Clemson and Ohio State has the Tigers favored by two.

With order restored at the top, the only controversy as this year’s bowl season looms is the one that has been around for far too long. Do we really need thirty-nine bowl games, a number that of course requires seventy-eight teams to be deemed “bowl eligible?” That standard has grown increasingly flexible in recent years, as results from conferences both big and small have simply not produced enough teams with strong winning records. The scope of the problem is best illustrated by bowl promoters celebrating that this season no 5-7 team had to be invited in order to fill out the bowl schedule. But there are plenty of teams preparing for games later this month on the “strength” of 7-5 records during the regular season, and an even dozen squads that still have one contest on the schedule after scrabbling to an even 6-6 mark over the past three months. Pittsburgh at 7-5 versus 6-6 Eastern Michigan, or that fine .500 team from Florida International versus 7-5 Arkansas? No thanks.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 5, 2019

All They Want For Christmas Is A Job

The remnants of the Thanksgiving turkey have been reduced to soup stock; the thrill, though that may not be the right word, of Black Friday shopping is over; businesses across the land have absorbed the dip in productivity from employees focused on Cyber Monday shopping rather than their jobs. New England, like much of the northern half of the country, lies under a fresh blanket of snow. These are all reminders that the holiday season is upon us, that warm-hearted time of goodwill to all, except those who take one’s parking space near the front door of Best Buy or Dick’s. Truly it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unless, of course, one happens to be a head coach.

With the chase for a spot in the NFL playoffs reaching its peak, and both the NHL and NBA seasons far enough along to pass judgment on whether teams are meeting preseason expectations, December can be an especially hazardous time for those in the coaching profession. Just two days ago the NFL’s Carolina Panthers parted ways with Ron Rivera, a two-time AP Coach of the Year who led the franchise to four playoff appearances in nine seasons, including a berth in Super Bowl 50. But since falling short against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in February 2016, the Panthers have managed a winning record only once. After somehow finding a way to lose to Washington last weekend, Rivera’s team stood at 5-7, well outside the league’s postseason picture. The performance of the last few seasons, along with new owner David Tepper’s desire to put his own pick on the sideline, made the winningest coach in franchise history expendable.

Joining Rivera in the unemployment line on Tuesday was John Hynes, who had guided the New Jersey Devils since 2015. Although he was only 40 years old and had no prior NHL head coaching experience when he was tabbed for the Devils job by Ray Shero, who was then the newly named general manager, Hynes’s resume included a stint working for Shero in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. That connection was enough to land him a spot behind the Devils’ bench. But the lack of experience showed over four seasons in which New Jersey made just one trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Somehow that track record was enough for the club to give Hynes a contract extension last January. But eleven months later to the day, after a horrid start to the current campaign, Shero finally decided that performance outweighed friendship.

Rivera and Hynes don’t yet have a companion from the NBA joining them on the list of head coaches fired in December, but the month is less than a week old and the Knicks are 4-17. If the New York tabloids are to be believed, head coach David Fizdale may not want to splurge on his Christmas shopping. Whether Fizdale becomes the first coaching casualty of the NBA season or not, sudden dismissal is an integral part of the coaching job description. That’s evidenced by the fact that aside from the Panthers and Devils, 24 of the 91 other NFL, NHL, and NBA head coaching jobs have been occupied by the current incumbent for a year or less. Nor were this week’s firings the first of the new season in these leagues, with two other hockey jobs and one in the NFL previously turning over.

One of those earlier dismissals is the most compelling of all the midseason coaching changes to date, and likely to remain at the top of the list short of Bob Kraft suddenly deciding that he’s grown tired of Bill Belichick. Two weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock, who coached his 700th career victory not long before being shown the door. Babcock joined the Leafs prior to the 2015-16 season after first taking Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first of two years out west, and then guiding the Detroit Red Wings to the postseason every season for a decade and winning the Stanley Cup in 2008.

Its status as an Original Six member of the league gives Toronto a special place in the NHL’s hierarchy of franchises. But while the Maple Leafs have hoisted the Cup thirteen times, no captain in a blue and white sweater has done so since 1967, when Babcock was four years old and many of the team’s fans weren’t yet born. Even worse, it’s not like the franchise has even come close to a championship of late. When Babcock was lured away from his successful run in Detroit, Toronto fans had been able to buy tickets to postseason hockey just once in the previous decade. At the time the opinion in this space was that he was either courageous or crazy.

Given the recent history of the franchise, Babcock appeared to have Toronto headed in the right direction. After missing the playoffs in his first season, the Maple Leafs saw Stanley Cup action each of the last three years while winning forty or more regular season games in all those campaigns, a decided improvement over recent history.

But it turns out that even coaching royalty needs to maintain good relations with the front office. Babcock made a point of preaching patience when he was introduced as Toronto’s new leader, but he was joining a franchise that had churned through five head coaches in the previous nine years. Before long Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas were reportedly at odds over the type of team to put on the ice. The coach favored grinding, hard checking players while the executive wanted a lineup built around speed. In that debate Dubas had the upper hand since he oversaw the roster, and over time Babcock was left with a lineup that wasn’t much to his liking. His long record of success behind the bench may also have given Babcock an inflated sense of his own importance. More than a few players chafed at his domineering style, and in the wake of his firing a good deal of that anger has bubbled to the surface on social media.

With all those issues in play, a slow start to the current season proved just what Dubas needed to add “fired” to Babcock’s resume, for the first time in his coaching career. Now this coaching blueblood is joined by Rivera, who achieved but couldn’t sustain success, and Hynes, who was overmatched from day one. A few preceded them, and more are certain to follow – a widely divergent collection of professional ability that reminds fans that for head coaches, the holidays aren’t always a time of comfort and joy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2019

Can The Second Act Be As Good As The First?

It has been nearly eight decades since Thomas Wolfe warned us from beyond the grave that “you can’t go home again.” The 1940 novel, published posthumously as was much of the Wolfe canon, took its title from a conversation he had with another writer, who was probably mindful of Wolfe’s ability as an author of autobiographical fiction. The long years since his death in 1938 have seen Wolfe’s reputation wax and wane, and while many later authors have cited him as an influence, Wolfe is often missing from the syllabi of college courses on great American literature. If that is true at the State University of New Jersey, it would help explain the decision to bring back Greg Schiano, the head coach from 2001 to 2011, for another turn at the helm of Rutgers football. That was the news first reported by Yahoo Sports on Sunday, with a formal vote by the university’s board of governors on an 8-year, $32 million contract scheduled for Tuesday.

It’s easy to understand why Schiano’s initial tenure is remembered fondly by Rutgers’ administrators and fans of its football program. The school that had hosted the very first intercollegiate football game in 1869, a 6-4 win over Princeton, had seen just two winning seasons in seventeen years when Schiano arrived for his first head coach’s job. It took him some time to break that streak, recruiting being a slow process. But once he did, starting in 2005, Schiano led his squad to winning campaigns and bowl appearances in six of his final seven seasons. Along the way he greatly increased the stature of a football program that had been little more than an afterthought in the Big East, itself hardly a power conference when it came to football.

That in turn gave Rutgers some options when the Big East restructured and became a basketball-only conference shortly after Schiano moved on to a disastrous and short-lived stay at the NFL level as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Along with the University of Maryland, Rutgers joined the Big 10 in 2014 as part of the broad conference restructuring sweeping though college football at the time. The two schools were enticed by the hefty payouts from the Big 10’s television contract and multiple major bowl appearances, while the conference saw dollar signs in gaining a foothold in the New York and Washington media markets.

On the field however, the Scarlet Knights soon learned the difference between being the proverbial big fish in the tiny Big East pond, and swimming with the sharks. Rutgers managed to hold its own in 2014, winning three conference games and finishing with an overall winning record thanks to a soft nonconference schedule. But in the five seasons combined since the Scarlet Knights have bettered that conference win total by exactly one, posting a 4-41 mark against Big 10 opponents while two official head coaches and one interim placeholder in the position have all come and gone.

But while school athletic director Pat Hobbs teased the Schiano hiring on Sunday with a statement that “the next great chapter for Rutgers Football is about to begin,” the task is monumental and there’s no guarantee that Schiano is up to the challenge. There is doubtless some recruiting cachet in being a member of one of college football’s premier conferences, but the real allure for a promising high school player is the reputation of the specific program, a lesson already learned the hard way by Kyle Flood, Chris Ash, and Nunzio Campanile – Schiano’s successors on the sideline at SHI Stadium in Piscataway.

Also, the focus on the successful second half of his first stay at Rutgers conveniently ignores Schiano’s overall coaching record. Counting his entire record with the Scarlet Knights including bowl appearances, and his two lost seasons in Tampa Bay, Schiano’s record as a head coach is a middling 84-89. He also hasn’t been a head coach at either the college or professional level since being dismissed by the Buccaneers in December 2013. Schiano’s resume since then includes two seasons coaching a high school team and three as an assistant at Ohio State.

He’s also seen two jobs vanish, fairly or unfairly. Three decades ago, Schiano began his career as the defensive backs coach at Penn State. There he was a protégé of Jerry Sandusky, who is now serving 30 to 60 years for rampant sexual abuse of young boys. What Schiano knew and when he knew it has been the subject of debate, which was enough for the University of Tennessee to withdraw its 2017 head coaching offer in the face of fierce vocal opposition and for Schiano to decide on his own to resign as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator earlier this year, before his hiring was even officially announced.

The issue is likely to be raised again in the coming days, though the guess here is that the happy memories of Schiano’s first stay in Piscataway will mute any local criticism. Come next fall, Greg Schiano should be on the sideline when the Scarlet Knights begin a new football season, and perhaps in time the grand prediction of athletic director Hobbs will prove prescient. But both Rutgers and college football have moved on from the last time Schiano was a head coach. Somehow it seems more likely that the end of this story will be the restoration of Thomas Wolfe to the required reading list at Rutgers.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 28, 2019

At Three Different Games, Character Is Revealed

The three events were, on the face of it, unrelated. They were separated, by both distance – some 1,500 miles from New England to the Gulf Coast, with a Washington, D.C. suburb in between; and by time – with the first taking place on Sunday and the other two not until Wednesday evening. But all three involved interactions between a player and fans, and each spoke volumes, not just about that athlete’s ability in his sport, but also about his character and the depth of his understanding of the role played by those who sit in the stands.

Actually, the scene at Boston’s TD Garden during the NBA tilt between the home town Celtics and visiting Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night didn’t include direct interaction, because the player who was the focus of the vocal ire of Celtics fans wasn’t even in Massachusetts, much less on the Garden’s parquet floor. Kyrie Irving is currently sidelined with a right shoulder impingement that has kept him out of Brooklyn’s lineup for almost two weeks. But Irving’s absence for one of just two visits the Nets will make to Boston this season wasn’t going to deter the Celtics faithful from sharing their feelings about the player who arrived in Boston with so much hype prior to the 2017 season, only to depart after two deeply disappointing campaigns.

Irving engineered the trade that brought him to Boston from the Cleveland Cavaliers because he wanted out from under LeBron James’s very long shadow. But while he may have hungered for the role of leading man, he never looked entirely comfortable playing the part in front of a demanding fan base that hungers for another championship. His very first game in green presaged the two years that were to follow. Irving put up very good numbers against his old team from Cleveland in the Celtics’ 2017 season opener, with 22 points and 10 assists. But in a game that was marred by the gruesome injury to Boston’s other big offseason acquisition, Gordon Hayward, Irving had the ball with a chance to tile the Cavaliers and force overtime as time expired. But his three point try was off the mark and the contest went into the record books as a loss for Boston.

By late that season Irving had joined Hayward on the sideline with a knee injury, deferring any hope that he would be the superstar leading a surprisingly strong effort by a supporting cast of very young players. Still Celtics fans were willing to give Irving a chance to prove his mettle with a full roster, and they cheered when he announced at a fan event last fall that he intended to sign with Boston for the long term when he entered free agency after his second season at TD Garden.

A few months later, as the Celtics put up middling numbers and the atmosphere in the dressing room soured, Irving’s commitment to the fans was long forgotten, at least by the player. By the time he became a free agent in July, Irving plainly couldn’t wait to get out of Boston. The broken promise combined with an uninspired second round exit from last season’s playoffs – a worse result than the Celtics had posted without an injured Irving one year earlier – left most Boston fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. That was clear Wednesday night, when chants of “Kyrie sucks!” and “Where is Kyrie?” echoed through the Garden from the opening tip to the final horn of Boston’s 121-110 victory.

That should have been that, especially given Irving’s absence, but he responded from afar with a lengthy and rambling diatribe on social media, complaining that Celtics fans took their sport too seriously and didn’t respect him as a person. Given the complete lack of respect Irving showed Boston’s fan base, his whining served only to reveal his extraordinary level of self-absorption.

A much more positive story could have played out a few days earlier, when Washington’s rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins joined fans in celebrating that doleful franchise’s first home win in more than a year. Haskins made his way to the front of the stands behind Washington’s bench, where he grinned and mugged while taking a series of selfies with groups of fans who had congregated in the first rows of a largely empty FedEx Field. But what might have been a harmless bit of fun by an eager rookie enjoying his first NFL victory had one major problem. The game against the Detroit Lions wasn’t over. When interim head coach Bill Callahan couldn’t locate Haskins, he had to send backup quarterback Case Keenum onto the field for the contest’s final play.

Worse than Haskins’ lack of professionalism was his apparent lack of understanding that he’d done anything wrong. To be sure, perhaps in 2035, as he winds up a Hall of Fame career, this small incident will be long forgotten. But right now, Haskins is a very green first year player whose numbers to date suggest any future entry into the Hall will require him to buy a ticket. Plus, it’s fair to wonder just what there was to celebrate? With the 19-16 win over a fading Detroit team, Washington’s record inched up to 2-9, which hardly seems to merit the wide smile Haskins displayed in the pictures he may wish were never taken. If he wants to have an NFL career that lasts, he needs to both markedly improve his play and find a maturity that so far is utterly absent.

Finally, about the same time that fans in Boston were raining down invective on a ghost, their New Orleans brethren were giving former Pelican Anthony Davis similar treatment. “AD’s a sellout!” was the cry even before the star who forced a trade to the Lakers last June was introduced at Smoothie King Center. The booing that followed him all night long had to be sound familiar Davis, who was turned on by once adoring New Orleans fans after he announced his desire to be traded in the middle of last season.

But in his first game back at his old arena, Davis responded in the best possible way. It didn’t involve social media, or losing track of the game, or anything other than doing his job in the very best way. Davis connected for 41 points in the Lakers 114-110 win, and if that weren’t enough, he also stole an inbounds pass with the clock winding down, then sank a pair of free throws to seal the L.A. victory. It was a record-setting performance, the first time a player netted forty or more points in the first meeting with his previous franchise. It was also a testament to Davis’s professionalism and focus. Kyrie Irving and Dwayne Haskins would both be well-advised to consider it a teachable moment.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2019

A Sad Ending Just Waiting To Happen

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular Thursday and Sunday schedule resumes next week. As always, thanks for your support!

Melo is back. One year and four days after his exceedingly brief time in a Houston Rockets uniform ended with a terse announcement by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that the team was “parting ways” with the ten-time All Star, 35-year-old Carmelo Anthony returned to an NBA hardcourt Tuesday night as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. His many fans will no doubt cheer the return of Anthony and his 25,551 career points, second only to LeBron James among active players and the nineteenth highest career scoring total in league history. Make that 25,561 after Anthony tallied ten points on 4-14 shooting in 24 minutes as the Blazers lost for the tenth time in fifteen games so far this season, 115-104 to the New Orleans Pelicans. Yet however much some basketball fans are rejoicing at the news that the career of one of the NBA’s most prolific shooters isn’t over just yet, it’s hard to imagine Melo’s stay with his fifth franchise ending happily.

Anthony’s return came in the third of a six-game road trip for Portland. Tuesday’s contest was on the Pelicans’ home court at the Smoothie King Center, in the shadow of the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. Like most arenas, the venue draws its name from a corporate sponsor willing to write a prodigiously large check for the right to plaster its logo all over the structure. In this case the owner of the naming rights is a privately held franchisor of outlets selling ostensibly healthy blended beverages. But not so long ago, an arena called Smoothie King would have been an aptly named location for Carmelo Anthony to put on a show. In Denver’s rarified air, where his career flowered with the Nuggets, the team that made Anthony the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft after his freshman year at Syracuse, and later at the beginning of his time in Gotham with the Knickerbockers, Anthony defined smooth. Gliding across the court, finding isolation opportunities against overmatched defenders, he would take the ball and shoot and shoot, and then shoot some more, in nightly performances that frequently brought fans to their feet.

But the time since an arena crowd witnessed Anthony hitting one pull-up jumper after another while mixing in the occasional bomb for three is measured by more than just the months of his recent exile from an NBA roster. He led the league in scoring average in his third season in New York, averaging 28.7 points a game in 2012-13. The Knicks won 54 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs that season, achievements the woebegone Madison Square Garden franchise has not approached since, though that story is about much more than Anthony.

Still the numbers tell the tale, and Melo’s have been in steady decline since that year. Both his accuracy and his average have spiraled down together, to barely more than forty percent and just 16.2 points a game during 2017-18, his single season in Oklahoma City. Anthony’s numbers were even worse during his ten games with the Rockets early last year, though his fans might question the sample size.

One game is a decidedly small sample, but Tuesday night’s performance was Anthony’s game of recent years in microcosm. He was in the starting lineup, appropriate for a player who have always seen himself as a star. He was on the court for 24 minutes, certainly not the most of anyone in a Blazers uniform, but not the playing time of someone just filling a role either. And there were a couple of times when Anthony caught a defender flat-footed and launched a shot that found the bottom of the net and served as a reminder of another time.

But those few moments were more than offset by the many minutes in which he turned the ball over five times, played lackadaisical defense, and committed needless fouls while failing to draw a single whistle from New Orleans defenders. Most of all, those minutes were enough for Anthony to send shot after shot to the basket, producing miss after miss, ten in all out of fourteen attempts from the field, more shots than all but one of his teammates.

It is tempting to blame the long layoff that he endured, the months of not knowing if he would ever suit up and take the court again. But Anthony moved well while in the game, and he had his share of open looks. What he did not have was the deft shooting touch that always set Melo apart. Perhaps that will come back but imagining that it will requires a conscious decision to ignore the steady decline embodied in his statistics over the past half-dozen years. It’s also fair to wonder just how long the Trail Blazers are willing to wait. After going to the Western Conference Finals last spring, Portland is off to a terrible start this season, currently sitting near the bottom of the conference standings. Should management decide to throw in the towel, Anthony might have a home for the balance of the schedule, even if his contributions are minimal. But Houston started poorly last season, and one of the reasons the Rockets jettisoned an unproductive Anthony was GM Morey’s determination to get the franchise back in the playoff race.

Melo will be in the Hall of Fame one day, and there is every reason to wish the one-time superstar a soft exit from his sport. But even the biggest stars are not guaranteed a chance to go out on their own terms. All the baskets that produced more than 25,000 points don’t necessarily buy even the semblance of a farewell tour. It is the sadder but more familiar tale that is far more likely – that of one more hero who came to believe that the cheers would never stop, that time could be defied, and who thus stayed too long. That story always ends badly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2019

Cheating The Game Is Cheating The Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling the next two weekends, so there will be no post either this Sunday or next. Thursday posts will continue as usual, and the regular twice weekly schedule will resume over Thanksgiving weekend. As always, thanks for reading!

Smart people do stupid things. Fans everywhere would readily acknowledge that truism, and more than a few of above average intelligence would, if pressed, concede that they have personally taken a less than brilliant action a time or two. Or ten. That also applies to teams, which are groups of people united in a common cause.  So perhaps no one should be surprised by this week’s story at The Athletic in which former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who now toils for the Oakland A’s, alleged that when he wore a Houston uniform in 2017 the team used a combination of modern high tech and the most rudimentary of old-fashioned noisemakers to steal signs from the opposing pitcher and relay that information to batters at the plate.  But “unsurprising” is not a synonym for “acceptable.”

As Fiers told the popular sports website, when playing at home the Astros utilized a center field camera aimed at home plate to obtain the signs given by visiting catchers. The video feed from that camera was sent to a monitor just off the dugout, and a team member would then bang a trash can to alert the Houston hitter when the catcher had called for an off-speed pitch. Shortly after the story was published the Astros released a statement saying that an internal investigation had begun “in cooperation” with Major League Baseball, and that no further comment would be forthcoming until that investigation was complete.

The most telling aspect of the press release is what it didn’t say. Unlike manager A.J. Hinch’s tirade to the media during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees last month, when he adamantly denied that his team was stealing signs, the franchise’s statement did not include a denial of Fiers’s charges. That alone is likely enough to ensure that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will not allow Houston to handle this issue as if it were some internal matter.

That the Astros are a smart franchise is beyond debate. Houston was one of the pioneers of the currently popular strategy of asking fans to endure several years of losing badly in order to build up prospects and clear salary space so that in time a winning roster can be put on the field. Heralded by Sports Illustrated as a future World Series winning team early in that process, the Astros made the magazine’s writers look prescient by rolling to the title in 2017. Since that 101-win season Houston has won two more AL West titles by twice more winning more than 100 games, while going to the ALCS in 2018 and back to the World Series just last month.

Yet for all that success this is not the first time that the Astros have been the subject of an unflattering story for which they can only blame themselves. It’s not even the first such controversy this autumn. During the playoffs the franchise suffered a well-deserved black eye from its response to the news of locker room taunting of female reporters by an assistant general manager. The Astros first statement was an attack on the reporter who broke that story. Then the team dawdled through gradual backtracking to eventual acknowledgement, so that by the time the employee was fired and an apology was issued the contrition felt forced.

It would be foolish to suggest (though that hasn’t stopped a few fans of other franchises from doing so), that Houston’s success on the field is simply attributed to cheating. Still, it is worth noting that during the 2017 postseason the Astros won eight of nine games at Minute Maid Park. Even the best hitter will have a better chance of putting his bat on the ball if he knows what kind of pitch is about to be sent his way. But more important than whatever edge the sound of a bat banging against a trash can might have given Astros hitters is what not merely this story, but the emerging pattern self-inflicted damage says about the culture of the Houston franchise. Astros fans might want to use the time they had planned to spend celebrating a second championship pondering that question instead.

This story also raises a broader issue for the Great Game, and for that matter almost all our sports. Technology, and the reference here is to the real time video feed into the dugout, not the use of a trash can as a cymbal, advances at a lightning pace while becoming every more imbedded in our games. That is helpful in so many ways, but it also presents new opportunities for those who believe breaking the rules is the best way to get ahead. That includes not just those playing a sport, but also the many who might stand to gain from a particular outcome. If, for example, MLB moves to computerized scanning of the strike zone in the near future, supplanting human umpires for calling balls and strikes, will there be real and reliable safeguards against hacking the computer driving the technology? That includes protections against outside parties like gamblers, and not just the efforts of a clever nerd in the home team’s front office.

In any sport, a basic element of the compact with fans is that those who sit in the stands or subscribe to a cable package can trust the integrity of the game. We should never have to doubt that the playing field is level, both literally and figuratively. The Astros are a great team. But the Houston franchise does baseball a disservice when that becomes a question, rather than a statement.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2019

Winners, And A Whole Lot Of NFL Losers

Perhaps it’s time for a new slogan. The National Football League ascended to its current place as the country’s most popular sport in no small part on the mantra that “on any given Sunday” parity reigned. Thanks to many factors, including the limited impact of any one player in a sport requiring so many participants, the weighted schedule that gives teams with the best records one season a harder path toward duplicating that feat the next, and the salary cap’s ceiling on player contracts, not to mention the vagaries of injuries in the brutal sport, teams with poor records could always hope to turn things around while franchises on top knew their grip on excellence could easily turn slippery.

But with the current season now past it’s halfway mark, this year’s standings are notable for the number of teams sporting records at the extremes. As play began this weekend seven franchises had two or fewer losses, while eight could lay claim to just two or fewer wins. That’s basically half the league displaying either true dominance of considerable ineptitude, which is probably not what commissioner Bert Bell, who led the early growth of the league in the 1950s, had in mind when he first used the famous phrase to describe NFL play.

Some of the teams at the top are occupying familiar positions, which itself calls into question the validity of Bell’s old expression. The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the franchise that represents the antithesis of parity, are 8-1. The New Orleans Saints came into the week almost as good at 7-1 and seemed determined to avenge the conference title that was stolen from them by blatantly bad officiating last season. Then there are teams like the Baltimore Ravens, who whipped the Patriots last week behind the dynamic play of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers, who play Monday night, that are back as serious contenders after a few seasons wandering in the football wilderness.

But as is often the case the more interesting stories are at the other end of the standings, among the many teams who now seem to be vying for the right to pick first in next spring’s draft. As with the teams worth rooting for, some of the losers are right where any fan would expect to find them, namely mired deep in the standings. Surely that’s the case in Washington, were fans have largely stopped showing up at FedEx Field. In a city that has become a town full of winners, first with the NHL’s Capitals, then the WNBA’s Mystic and most recently the World Series champion Nationals, owner Dan Snyder is so reviled by fans that his NFL team doesn’t even qualify as a lovable loser.

Then there are the teams that are just having down years (as opposed to lost decades), or so at least their fans hope. With a series of trades just as the season began, the Miami Dolphins stated their clear intention to write off this season. Yet despite their best, or is it worst, efforts the Fish aren’t even in sole possession of last place in the AFC East but are tied with the Jets for coveted title of cellar dweller. Instead the league leader in the race for the bottom, and the right to the next twenty-year-old future franchise quarterback come April, is Cincinnati. The Bengals have yet to break into the win column this season. Even an extended rest for their bye last weekend couldn’t help them, as they continued to make other teams look good, with Baltimore being the most recent beneficiary. Fans everywhere are no doubt looking forward to the next to last week of the regular season, when the Bengals travel to Miami for an epic showdown against the Dolphins.

A foretaste of that was on offer this Sunday in the Meadowlands, where the 1-7 Jets squared off against the 2-7 Giants. If ever there was good reason to avoid the traffic headaches of getting to and from MetLife Stadium every single week of the season, this year’s play by the two franchises that share the field is it. Remarkably enough, Sunday afternoon’s game was reasonably entertaining, though that may just prove that parity can also be found among lesser levels of competition. In the end Jets fans went home happy, while the Giants’ faithful were left to contemplate what might have been, this weekend’s game having been the rare instance in which the Giants were favored.

Still, the best football game of the entire weekend may well have been in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, where LSU withstood a furious rally by host Alabama to win 46-41, putting the Tigers in command of the SEC West and placing in jeopardy the Crimson Tide’s streak of six straight appearances in the College Football Playoff. Watching that game one couldn’t help thinking that one of those high-powered offenses might be more than a match for the shoddy defensive play exhibited by so many of the NFL’s also-rans. One also wondered why, given the superior quality of play, the young men on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, in contrast to their NFL brethren, weren’t getting paid.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2019

A New Season, But An Old Issue

Let’s give credit where it is due. With so many sources of sports information, ESPN has faced declining ratings and myriad other troubles over the past few years. As for the NCAA, headlines about the principal governing body of collegiate athletics usually range from negative to dire. But the sports network and the association together produced a winner with the Champions Classic, the doubleheader featuring four storied teams that’s kicked off the major college basketball season since 2011. Two games on one night, featuring rotating matchups between Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State – programs with a combined total of eighteen NCAA titles – give fans a taste of the drama that is this sport at its best. It’s an atmosphere that likely won’t come again until deep into next March, when the annual madness is nearing its peak. And unlike the season-ending tournament, with its inherent vagaries, this event guarantees back-to-back games featuring four marquee competitors.

Play it at Madison Square Garden, as happened earlier this week, with the four teams ranked one through four in both the AP and Coaches polls for the first time ever, and the Champions Classic becomes a headline-grabbing preview of a potential blue-chip Final Four.

On paper at least, both games were mild upsets, with #4 Duke beating #3 Kansas 68-66 and #2 Kentucky upending #1 Michigan State 69-62. Those results will likely shuffle the rankings when the sportswriters and coaches next cast their ballots, but the truth is all four teams stand a good chance of being ranked #1 at some point over the next four months. The Spartans are the slight betting favorite to cut down the nets next spring, but all four of the teams that ran up and down the hardcourt of the World’s Most Famous Arena, along with North Carolina and Florida, are the darlings of the sports books.

Of course, a season’s worth of games between now and tournament time will yield its fair measure of surprises. Teams will rise and fall, some players will underperform while others thrive in the spotlight, and somewhere along the way a Cinderella or two will demand to be fitted for that elusive glass slipper. If that broad list encompassed all the stories that will come out of the new college basketball season, it’s likely that ESPN, and especially the NCAA, would be very happy. But even the four top-ranked teams in the land playing a doubleheader at the Garden couldn’t cause fans to entirely forget that off-court issues are virtually certain to intrude on the preferred storylines.

In California a new law, which doesn’t take effect until 2023, allows student-athletes to be paid for the use of their name or likeness, and to hire agents. In response the NCAA Board of Governors voted to move ahead with developing a plan to allow similar compensation everywhere, though the committee that’s been charged with the task of filling in the details has an extremely vague mandate. Meanwhile a former Villanova defensive back now playing in the Canadian Football League filed a class action lawsuit accusing the association of violating minimum wage laws by refusing to pay athletes.

Hovering over the various efforts to fundamentally change the relationship between schools and the young people on the fields, courts, and rinks is the question of just how much that relationship has already strayed from the pristine amateurism that is supposedly at the heart of college sports. Kansas head coach Bill Self, one of the four celebrity coaches at the Champions Classic, all of whom were far better known than any of their players, is facing the possibility of NCAA sanctions for allegedly being complicit in the payments of more than $100,000 to three basketball recruits by Adidas. Perhaps as that case unfolds the association will eventually impose severe punishment on the longtime coach of the Jayhawks. But until that happens Self remains beloved on the Kansas University campus, where no one seems to mind his annual $7.15 million salary.

The relationship between KU and its coach is by no means unusual. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl was found in violation of NCAA rules at two of his previous stops, but after taking the Tigers to last spring’s Final Four, he received a five-year, $20 million contract extension. DePaul’s coach was suspended for three games and had his program placed on NCAA probation, but that didn’t stop Dave Leitao and the school from opening negotiations on a new contract.

It is easy to look at that landscape and despair, to throw up one’s hands and conclude that the status quo is permanent. Yet while the pace of change may be unacceptably slow, it now seems inevitable that change is in fact coming. The legislature of the country’s largest state has done its part. While the federal corruption investigation into big-time college basketball has been most notable for its focus on bit players – assistant coaches and hangers on – the headlines at least served to strip away any pretense that the so-called amateur ideal is still a reality at the highest levels of college sports. As the lawsuits pile up, as other states look to follow California’s lead, and as even the NCAA, however grudgingly, acknowledges that it must act, the day when student-athletes are fairly compensated for their work draws closer.

The most recognizable figures at the Champions Classic were four men on the sidelines. Self, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are four of the most famous head coaches in the country, and they have all become wealthy while taking teams to multiple Final Four appearances. But for all their fame, fans didn’t pack the seats at the Garden to see the coaches. In college sports, it’s long past time to start sharing the wealth.

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