The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
We all know the lament, and some of us have been writing about it for almost four years. Will Drew Brees, one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks, go down in history as another Archie Manning? Great player on an average team. Sure, Brees won a Super Bowl which puts him in kind of a purgatory of greatness. Certainly higher than Archie, who never enjoyed a winning season in New Orleans, but not quite the Beulah Land of Peyton or even Eli, if you’re counting championships.
The problem was never Brees’ offense that annually ranks in the top two or three in the league. It has been the defense, which has ranked at the bottom of the league the past few years in all the measurable criteria while ranking No. 1 in the league in frustration and futility. Things had not changed much during the first two games, in which the opponents’ passing lanes were no more guarded than the "anything goes" I-10 drag strip between New Orleans East and the Slidell bridge.
But in the past three games, a glimmer of hope suddenly has brightened into a beam of pure optimism. The Saints’ defense has stifled the offenses of three teams that could be in the playoffs come January. In defeating the Panthers, Dolphins and Lions, the Saints defense over those three games is tied with the Packers for tops in the NFL in takeaways, third in the NFL in pass yards per attempt at 5.0 and a respectable 12th in rushing yards allowed. This team has got game and a welcomed swagger that on Sunday was evident at every incompletion, sack or turnover! And against the Lions, the defense displayed a new feature – get those hands up! – that resulted in 16 tipped passes. A tipped pass has as much chance to become a completion as a 10-foot Miller putt! But I digress …
So, Who Dats, it appears that you now have the defense you’ve been clamoring for these past few years. So what happens how? Let’s run a few scenarios. They could continue to exhibit the confidence they displayed against the Lions and plow through the remainder of the schedule and into the playoffs. Or, they could return Who Dat Nation to its periodic depths of melancholy and lose games they shoulda or coulda won, but didn’t. Arguably, the most likely scenario would be one where some weeks, they play like Tarzan and other weeks like Jane, the perils of a young team. And the Saints defense has its share of players who aren’t old enough to rent a car.
Whatever happens, it will start next week in Green Bay where the dominating performance could be expected to continue. The Packers are suddenly scrambling to find a quarterback after a broken collarbone may have ended Aaron Rodgers’ season. There’s no joy in announcing that because injuries shouldn’t be celebrated, even if it might help your team. Best wishes to Rodgers for a speedy recovery, but the fact remains that Rodgers’ replacement is not Rodgers.
For the record, third-year man Brett Hundley is the backup and will likely start against the Saints, but Packer backers are burning up the online boards today with suggestions for a quick-fix. Several suggest that Wisconsin native Tony Romo might enjoy a break from his TV duties and return to the field, but the most intriguing is Colin Kaepernick. Signing the new appellant days after he filed a collusion suit against the NFL might resolve several issues, if the organization can handle the distraction. But where else in the league would a distraction be better absorbed than the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?
Coaches have never been the most tolerant of individuals, especially when it comes to coverage of their teams by the news media. You remember local coaching rants to the press such as “you guys think you know, but you’ll never know” and similar complaints of unfairness. I’ve never seen a coach who is going through a difficult time with his team thank media members for their critical coverage. The traditional news media still values its position as community watchdog, but skepticism is at an all-time high, thanks to technology. The "adjunct" media with its innumerable outlets, blogs, tip sheets, and websites – aided by their ex-officio squad of IPhone spies with their cameras linked to You Tube – have taken coverage to new levels. Today, it is more important to get it first than to get it right.
Just ask poor Ed Orgeron at LSU who was being fired daily by some media mavens after his Tigers' mediocre start that included a loss to Sun Belt member Troy. Ask Tennessee Coach Butch Jones, who thinks the Knoxville press is one reason his Volunteers have sunk into an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference. I doubt that the ghost of Tom Siler, the legendary columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is carving holes in the defense from the Great Beyond or that his progeny are otherwise affecting the trajectory of passes by the current Vols’ quarterbacks. But that’s what Jones apparently thinks.
I have often wondered how a coach would handle it if the press covering his team were generous, supportive and actually adoring? And now, when we have just such an unlikely scenario, that’s apparently not so good, either, according to Nick Saban. The Alabama head coach just might have reached a new high (or low?) in reaction to the media when he complained about all the good press his top-ranked Crimson Tide has been receiving from a sycophantic Alabama press corps and even some national pundits.
Saturday night after the Tide held on to defeat a stubborn Texas A&M team, 27-19, Saban ranted that he wished his players listened to him more than the glowing coverage they have been receiving. “I just wish sometimes they would listen to me instead of all the things you guys write,” Saban said at his post-game presser. “That stuff is poison to a team. Rat poison! I’m asking them ‘Are you going to listen to me or are you going to listen to those guys about how good you are?’ We’re not going to beat everybody 66-3!”
Apparently, Saban felt his team did not play hard enough based on consensus that the poor Aggies would roll over dead when they saw crimson jerseys on the other bench. Well, they did not, and Saban thinks the culprit was the press, who elevated his players into a comfort zone. Obviously, Saban would prefer a critical press to an adoring one. That is in line with tradition if you think of the longstanding use of the locker room bulletin board as motivation. Coaches have forever clipped and saved critical stories that questioned their players’ skill, manhood or ability to perform as the fans expect them to.
So, let it be a lesson to every ink-stained wretch, barking dog of the electronic media or IPhone paparazzi who are assigned to cover a Nick Saban team. Do yourself a favor. Be as critical as truth allows so you can do Nick’s job for him. If you are incessantly ragging on his team, he merely has to point to your latest screed and say to his team: “See what those guys are saying about you?”
It’s always been easier for a coach to circle the wagons than to sing hosannas around the camp fire. And if that happens, and Nick happens to wink at you after a blow-out performance, you'll know why!
I was disappointed but not surprised by the revelations in college basketball last week when a handful of assistant coaches at prominent schools were implicated in an FBI investigation. After a few hours of hints and innuendo, the news broke that the biggest fish in the investigation were University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and AD Tom Jurich. Both were put on “administrative leave” which is academe’s oh-so-political excuse that higher education does not soil itself by rushing to judgment. In reality, members of the U of L administration and Board of Trustees began building the guillotine and planning an execution at sunrise.
Of course, 80 miles up I-64, members of Big Blue Nation were ecstatic at the public humiliation of Pitino - the ultimate turncoat who abandoned the UK program for the NBA and then betrayed all things Blue by taking the U of L job. It’s been a giddy week in most sections of the Bluegrass, but I’m not celebrating. I am saddened because a sport I have dearly loved all my life has been exposed in a scandal that surely will mean radical change. Sure, things like the antics of immoral coaches and shoe companies need to be fixed, but the NCAA will respond like the doctor who prescribes medicine that may cure you if it doesn’t kill you.
This isn’t the first time NCAA basketball has bared its backside through elements of corruption, and nobody should throw stones. Schools are put on probation almost annually for violating one NCAA rule or another, so much so that it’s shrugged off as part of the territory. Even my alma mater, Kentucky, has made mistakes, most notably a point shaving scandal in 1951 and the infamous Emery Envelope scandal of 1988. It’s truly ironic that the latter prompted a house-cleaning in Lexington and a squeaky clean new coach who came in and restored a sense of pride and, ultimately, two national championships and an overtime runner-up between 1996-98 with players he recruited.
I appreciate what Pitino did to resurrect Kentucky basketball, and I was disappointed, although not shocked, that he bolted the program to head back to the NBA. But in 2001, when he announced he was returning to college basketball – at Kentucky’s greatest rival, the University of Louisville – it was a surprise that worked to the advantage of both schools. Pitino’s presence in a red tie on the opposing bench added even more gravitas to the intrastate rivalry. Kentucky fans weren’t just out to beat Louisville; now they wanted to rub Pitino’s nose in it!
More than anything else, Pitino’s presence lifted the rivalry to a scale it had never seen before. A fitting example was the week that Kentucky and Louisville were to play in the 2012 NCAA Final Four in New Orleans. A comic incident at a rural Kentucky dialysis center made national news when two patients awaiting dialysis - one a Kentucky fan, the other a Louisville fan – became embroiled in a fistfight in the waiting room and police had to be summoned. That’s a rivalry! And now, Rick Pitino is the poster boy for what one writer has called the “dirty underbelly” of college athletics.
What happens now is what concerns me most. The NCAA has been embarrassed as it took federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York – Rudy Giuliani’s old office, in fact – to reveal a three-year investigation of its member schools. With its heralded enforcement staff now discredited and its credibility reduced to so much blah-blah-blah, the Pitino perp walk will force the NCAA to do something drastic to restore its appearance of usefulness. What that will be is unknown, but one so-called “solution” that has gained popularity during the past week is to pay the athletes. The respected Jay Bilas, a former player at Duke and now a prominent commentator, says that paying players is the solution. “That pesky free market works incredibly well and efficiently," Bilas wrote this week. "It is foolish to assert that it would not work just as well for college athletes. After all, these schools know exactly whom to recruit and whom to play the most minutes in games. They know whom to pay and how much."
Whatever the change, it will be drastic, a firefight as the NCAA opens fire on every suspended offender in its sights. And the biggest problem with that? Indiscriminate firing at multiple targets often leaves collateral damage. That means the big boys will survive whatever the NCAA decides while the small fish – the UNO’s of the world that can’t afford to pay players or provide any other benefit – will suffer the most.
My column Monday on the NFL protests during the national anthem was one of the most-read pieces I’ve ever posted. It also prompted several responses from readers who took the time to present their opposition, or blessing, of the events. I’ve selected three of those responses and present them here.
Les from New Orleans:
I agree with Drew Brees 100%! There is enough divisive rhetoric on tv/radio and in the paper everyday! I don't want NFL football to be another platform for more of the same! If it continues I will have to switch my Sunday routine to work on my golf swing (and believe me it needs a lot of work)as opposed to watching the NFL I have been a fan of for so many years!
Bill from Richmond:
I used to think like you that it is/was terrible that sports figures did not stand at attention with hands over hearts for the National Anthem. I will continue to do so. However, and this is a big however, it is their right to protest in this "peaceful" way. Plus, Trump never knows when to keep his mouth shut or his thumbs crossed. I have to readily admit that I think the election of Donald Trump was a terrible mistake. His life and actions violate so much that an average American holds dear. I don't understand how a veteran, a Christian, someone who believes in the sanctity of marriage, a businessman who follows the rule of law, a woman, etc. a combination of any or all of these could vote for him. In nearly 78 years of following the American Body Politic I am profoundly confused. I read a review of a new book out called "Fantasyland" which probably explains part of it. Trump emerged as a TV Star and America loves Stars, glamor, etc. I feel like I am living in some kind of reality TV show. Maybe it will all work out for the good of America, but I grow increasingly pessimistic.
Mike from New Orleans:
So let's recap. Tim Tebow takes a knee for prayer and it's unacceptable. The Dallas Cowboys are not allowed to wear a decal honoring the five "murdered" Dallas Police Officers slaughtered for the crime of wearing a "Blue uniform." NFL Players told they couldn't wear 9/11 cleats to honor close to almost 3,000 victims which included well over 400 first responders, thousands working in NYC in the Twin Towers and all those passengers on Flight 93 who bravely battled back against terrorists and lost their lives in doing so. None of those Patriotic, heartfelt tributes are allowed on the football field, but, this disrespectful, divisive kneeling during the National Anthem is allowed and condoned by many teams across the country and many owners as well as the NFL and Roger Goodell. Let that sink in. Now do something. Make the stadiums empty. You believe in this. Empty stadiums = NO MONEY.
Rod from New Orleans:
I wish it were so simple as to declare that the National Anthem is off limits to protest under the belief that any protest is somehow disrespectful to the military or unpatriotic. I respect the opinion of those who hold that view - I simply disagree that it’s all or nothing. To totally disregard what the protest is all about in the first place or to treat the underlying facts behind it as irrelevant is as insulting to me as it seems to be to those who connect the protest to disrespect of the country or military. Did you know this? Aug 14, 2016 - Colin Kaepernick sits for the national anthem, and no one noticed. Aug 20, 2016 - Colin again sits, and again, no one noticed. Aug 26, 2016 - Colin sits and this time he is met with a level of vitriol unseen against an athlete. Even the future President of the United States took shots at him while on the campaign trail. Colin went on to explain his protest had NOTHING to with the military, but he felt it hard to stand for a flag that didn't treat people of color fairly.
Then on Aug 30, 2016 Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret turned NFL long snapper, penned an open letter to Colin in the Army Times. In it he expressed how Colin's sitting affected him. Then a strange thing happened. Colin was able to do what most Americans to date have not. He listened. In his letter, Mr. Boyer writes: "I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes a lot of courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war. Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it."
Mr. Boyer goes on to write "There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind. I look forward to the day you're inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I'll be standing right there next to you." Empathy and understanding was shown by Mr. Boyer and Mr. Kaepernick reciprocated. Colin invited Nate to San Diego where the two had a 90-minute discussion and Nate proposed Colin kneel instead of sit. But why kneel?
In a military funeral, after the flag is taken off the casket of the fallen military member, it is smartly folded 13 times and then presented to the parents, spouse or child of the fallen member by a fellow service member while KNEELING. The two decided that kneeling for the flag would symbolize his reverence for those that paid the ultimate sacrifice while still allowing Colin to peacefully protest the injustices he saw. Empathy, not zealotry under the guise of patriotism, is the only way meaningful discussion can be had. Mr. Kaepernick listened to all of you that say he disrespects the military and extended an olive branch to find a peace. When will America listen to him? Thanks Mudge Rudiger. We can all learn from this backstory. The truth often lies in the middle. Seek to learn the opposing side's views is the best I hope for my friend. God Bless the USA !!
On Thursday, I got a call from Doug Mouton, an old friend who is sports director of WWL-TV, asking if I would appear on the station’s popular “Fourth Down on Four” Sunday after the Saints game. I couldn’t turn him down because Doug’s been a friend since I came to the Saints at a time he was laboring at the bottom of the TV sports spectrum as a cameraman. Plus, a little visibility helps sell books as well as infusing some credibility into my website, speaking engagements and family discussions.
I committed, not knowing exactly what line of questioning he would ask, although I had a pretty good idea. With the Saints struggling the first two games and headed to Carolina in Week 3, it was inevitable that the line of questioning after a third straight loss would go like this: “Can the season be saved?” “Should Sean Payton be fired?” “Should Tom Benson clean house?” “What would you do if it was your decision?” I was contemplating how I could diplomatically answer such questions, which were the same questions being asked in every barroom, social event and faculty lounge in Who Dat Nation, when, suddenly, the discussion changed.
Our Commander in Tweet notified America that NFL owners should fire “every son of a bitch” who did not stand for the national anthem. President Trump’s ire was directed at the movement began by QB Colin Kaepernick last season when he kneeled during the national anthem in protest of alleged police abuse of minority offenders. Since then, it’s not been uncommon to see a couple or a handful of players use the same gesture to protest inequality between the races or sexes or anything else they deem offensive. But in the space of 24 hours, Steph Curry said he had no interest in having the NBA champion Warriors honored at the White House, an invitation that was quickly rescinded. The University of North Carolina's NCAA champions followed suit, declining the same invitation, ostensibly because of “scheduling” problems.
The snowball kept growing as the President’s words prompted NFL owners, executives, coaches and players, up to and including Roger Goodell, to express outrage. Of course, players being players, they used the grand stage with protests ranging from locking arms on the sidelines during the anthem to remaining in the locker room until the song was over. So, all of a sudden, the big news that demanded comment on my little television show was not the Saints snapping out of their lethargy, but about nearly every single team expressing rejection of the President’s words.
So, I began pondering answers to the new line of questioning I feared that I would face. I’m a traditionalist who took offense at Kaepernick’s protest because I believe that fans attend games or tune in to see football and not a political protest. But I also know that sporting events have been co-opted before to drive home one point or another and that Democracy did not crumble because of it. I was still contemplating profound messages while driving down to the studio Sunday, with one ear to the Saints post-game show.
Unexpectedly, I heard words that I could agree with from QB Drew Brees. He was asked about the day’s activities, and after acknowledging he did not agree with the President’s words, which were “unbecoming to the office of the President of the United States,” he said something that should have been said the first time Kaepernick got his knees dirty.
“I will always feel that if you are an American the national anthem is an opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and show respect for our country and to show respect for what it stands for,” Brees said. “But if the protest becomes that we are going to sit down or kneel and not show respect to the United States of America and everything that it symbolizes, and everything that it stands for, and everything our country has been through to get to this point, I don’t agree with that … Looking at the flag with your hand over your heart is a unifying thing that should bring us all together and say, ‘You know what, we know what things are not where they should be, but we will continue to work and strive to make things better and bring equality to all people.’ … I will always believe that we should be standing and showing respect to our flag with our hand over our heart.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And, for that reason, by prearrangement Doug Mouton’s questions to me on “Fourth Down on Four” were strictly about the suddenly revived Saints.