The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The last few weeks have not been kind to the NCAA. Despite college football attracting millions of stone-cold serious fans to the annual Alabama/Clemson Seasonal Challenge, that other major sport has hijacked much of the attention, and it hasn’t been good.
In late September, Kansas University, which is playing musical chairs with Kentucky and Michigan State for the top pre-season ranking, was notified that the NCAA will soon release allegations detailing multiple major violations connected with the Adidas payoff scandal. Then a week ago, California Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill allowing college athletes in the state, principally basketball players, to earn endorsement and sponsorship money, setting up a facedown with the NCAA. And to top it off, on Friday night Kansas took off the worry mask and put on party hats as that legendary communicator and gangsta rap artist Snoop Dogg helped them kick off their version of basketball midnight madness with a show that featured slithery pole dancers, fake $100 bills shot out of a cannon and his own ribald concert that muh-fuh’d its way into college promotional history.
Call the fun police! Hoops hijinks has hijacked the NCAA’s serious season!
The California governor’s action, which only rubber-stamped a bill passed unanimously by the California legislature, has the NCAA in a major dither. The bill would allow college athletes in the state to accept money for product endorsements or sponsorship activities beginning in 2023. Such a practice runs counter to the NCAA’s longstanding mantra that college athletes under its purview are amateurs who receive an education and should not profit financially for their talents. That argument has been eroded in recent years by the amount of revenue the NCAA pulls in annually, reportedly more than $1 billion in 2018, as well as the rising salaries that go to coaches.
Before the bill was passed, the NCAA had written to the governor, threatening to ban athletes in California schools from competition if he signed the bill into law. The NCAA also said the bill was unconstitutional, setting up the prospect of lengthy litigation. I don’t think the California bill is as loathsome as the NCAA contends. Colleges are not going to start paying every basketball or football player in the program. Only the stars would likely have a chance to receive compensation, but therein lies my biggest concern.
California schools would suddenly have a huge recruiting advantage for blue-chip football or basketball players. For example, if Kansas and UCLA are recruiting the same player, the Bruins could enlist a local advertiser and bump their offer from the cost of attendance to include money for a paid endorsement from the local Chevy dealer. The better the player, the bigger the money, and there’s not a thing the NCAA could do about it.
NCAA violations are nothing to laugh about, especially the Adidas scandal that has taken down former Louisville coach Rick Pitino and tightened sphincters at Arizona, Auburn and other institutions, including hoops royalty Kansas. The notice of alleged major violations against the Jayhawks came two weeks after a former Adidas consultant with close ties to Kansas Coach Bill Self was sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to taking part in a “pay for play” scheme to attract top high school recruits to play at colleges sponsored by Adidas.
Text messages between Self and the Adidas consultant, Thomas Gassnola, were used in the 2018 federal court trial of two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent. Gassnola testified in court that he made payments to the mother of Kansas player Billy Preston and to the legal guardian of Silvio De Sousa, another KU player. The notice by the NCAA informs Kansas to grab your ankles, because they apparently have enough evidence to take down the coach and reduce the Kansas program to a shadow of its traditional, well, Self!
Speaking of whom, the head coach apparently has failed the test in NCAA rules and regulations, but he apparently knows less about gangsta rappers. Snoop Dogg headlined a concert that followed KU's “Late Night in the Phog” celebration that officially tips off the 2019-20 season. Maybe Self’s promotions people told him that Snoop has recorded duets with mainstream artists such as Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry but forgot to tell the coach that Snoop’s regular repertoire inclines toward raunchy performances spiced by his lyrical profanity.
The repeated use of words that rhyme with “fire truck” prompted Athletic Director Jeff Long to issue an apology immediately after the not-so-family-friendly performance. But depending on the NCAA’s announced violations of Self’s program, he might not have to worry about California paying a player he is recruiting in 2023 or which entertainer headlines next year’s “Late Night in the Phog.”
A remarkable thing occurred this past weekend that should have raised the eyebrows of any fan who has questioned the skill, the intentions and probably the heritage of NFL game officials. On Saturday, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that goes through the 2025 season. The current deal was set to expire next May. No information was given on improved methods of training or rules reviews or even the hands-off conversation of full-time officials. Nothing other than the subliminal news that the quality of officiating you have been seeing is the same quality of officiating that you will be seeing forthwith.
That such a deal would come at a time when game officials seem to be making more and bigger errors on calls and rules interpretations is odd to me. I am certain the officials pushed for an extension – call it job security – because criticism of their performances has come from coaches and players – the people who are affected the most – as well as disgruntled fans. NFL coaches and players probably would speak out more if not for the inevitable fines the league hands out for criticizing officials. They could take a tip from Jim Finks, who, when asked about questionable officiating after a Saints game, told the assembled reporters: “The league office has instructed club officials that we will be fined if we comment on lousy officiating.”
Working under Finks for seven years, I received a good education of NFL policies and procedures and what happens on both sides of the white lines. But hardly a game goes by that I don't want to throw the remote control at some pea-head in a striped shirt who makes another bad call. And it’s not only the alleged bad calls against teams I am rooting for, which have been easy to find for anyone who watches Saints games, but I also find myself shouting at the screen even when it benefits my team. Against the Cowboys on Sunday night, I thought the Saints were the beneficiaries of some generous calls that stymied a sluggish Dallas offense. Questionable calls alone did not beat the Cowboys, but they certainly helped the Saints’ stellar defense in the 12-10 victory.
You might believe that the Saints deserve some love from the zebras after the infamous No-Call during last year’s conference championship loss to the Rams and borderline incidents in the first two games this season. You will remember in the opener against Houston with less than a minute to go in the first half, the Saints were driving to cut into a 14-3 Texans’ lead. But a botched call cost a precious 15 seconds taken off the clock. That could have been enough time for QB Drew Brees to have run two more plays and gotten closer than the 56-yard attempt they were left with that kicker Wil Lutz missed. At least, NFL director of officiating Al Riveron admitted the error at halftime, although it did not appease Brees. “That can’t happen,” he said after the game.
The refs again fanned the Who Dat flame in the Saints' Week 2 rematch against the Rams, when Cameron Jordan’s fumble recovery and apparent 80-yard touchdown run was called back because the officials mistakenly had blown a whistle and stopped play. Those examples seem to confirm the local belief that the officials hate the Saints. But it’s not only happening to the Saints. Ask the Broncos or the Vikings about the officiating.
In Week 2, the Bears led the Broncos 13-6 with less than a minute to play, when Denver QB Joe Flacco hit Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone. Coach Vic Fangio audaciously went for the two-point conversion, but his team was called for delay of game. Settling for a game-tying PAT, the long-range kick was missed. But wait! The Bears were called for offsides, and the two-point conversion was back on and was successful. Payback? Nope! With 30 seconds remaining, Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky was sacked, but the officials called Denver’s Bradley Chubb for roughing the QB. (Believe me, I’ve seen the replay and so can you on You Tube, and it was a hard, but clean, tackle.)
With 9 seconds to go and facing a fourth-and-15 at his own 40-yard line, Trubisky dodged pass rushers then found Allen Robinson for a 25-yard gain, down to the Broncos’ 36 as the clock flashed :00 ! But wait again! The officials ruled the Bears called time out before time expired and put 1 second back on the clock. Eddy Pineiro nailed the 53-yarder. Bears win, Broncos screwed.
The same week, the Vikings trailed the Packers 21-7 late in the first half when QB Kirk Cousins hit WR Stefon Diggs in the end zone. The officials on the field signaled touchdown, but word came down from above that the play was under review. Dalvin Cook was called for offensive pass interference, and the touchdown was taken down. The Vikings lost the game, 21-16.
The timing of the referees' extension might simply be laid to the fact that the NFL wants to avoid, apparently at all costs, the contentious labor dispute in 2012 when the NFL locked out the officials. The league used replacement officials through the first three games of the season with several calls creating controversy. The trigger to a resolution was a Monday night game between Seattle and Green Bay in which the soon-to-be-known Fail Mary pass from Russell Wilson to Golden Tate was ruled a touchdown after Tate and a Packers’ defender caught the ball simultaneously.
However, replays showed that Tate shoved a defender with both hands and should have been flagged for pass interference. The photo of the catch (shown above) showed one official signaling touchdown and another signaling incomplete pass became a poster against replacement officials, and the regular refs were back at work the next week.
But in the last few months we have lived through far worse calls – or No Calls. So what was the urgency to assure that this band of the blind will stay on the job and continue to dish out more aggravation in the foreseeable future? It might make sense if you look at a typical management view of the nature of a labor union, to protect its rank-and-rile. In other words, unions work to preserve mediocrity instead of promoting excellence. And if recent performance is any indicator, these guys are mediocre at best.
One of sports’ enduring clichés is that the team is bigger than one player. You probably could not convince turd-in-exile Antonio Brown of that fact, but the most recent evidence is the Saints’ unlikely win at Seattle on Sunday. That victory did show that the team is bigger than one player, even if that player is future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
Teddy Bridgewater came in and played a steady, mistake-free game while his teammates took care of the rest. From the punt return for a touchdown by undrafted rookie Deonte Harris to the magical feet of Alvin Kamara to the scoop and score by Vonn Bell that highlighted a total defensive effort that held a prolific Seahawk offense to 14 points until four minutes remained in the game. “Well, look, that’s why it’s a team,” head coach Sean Payton said after the game. “There was something about the week we had in the locker room, even in the pregame.”
The loss probably came as a huge surprise to the Seahawks, who are as formidable in their outdoor insane asylum as the Saints have been in the Mercedes Benzon Superdome. They could be forgiven for expecting a victory over a team playing without its leader and coming off a disappointing loss to the Rams, their all-of-a-sudden conference nemesis. I know how they feel because the game reminded me of another Saints team years ago in which the cleat was on the other foot.
It was December 1, 1991, and the Saints were on their way to their first division championship. They were 9-3 at the time, and the 49ers were 6-6 and struggling. Their future Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana was out for the season, and their other FHoFQB Steve Young was hobbled with an injury. That left journeyman Steve (or as Jim Finks called him “Sonny”) Bono in the irons. A couple weeks earlier, the Saints defense had suffocated Bono, holding him to 15 completions in 32 attempts for a measly 131 yards, in a 10-3 win at the Superdome. Now we get to feast on good old Sonny again!
We flew to San Francisco fully expecting to bring home another victory. Rumors flew around that Young may be ready to play, but when we arrived at Candlestick Park, we received word that Young again was inactive and Bono would be the one dodging the Sack Pack. I remember exhaling a big sigh of relief. But what transpired is the reason they play the game anyway.
Neither team scored in the first quarter, but in the second period Bono got the Niners on the board with a 19-yard TD pass to WR John Taylor. The Saints came back quickly to tie the game on a 6-yard Steve Walsh strike to WR Floyd Turner. But on the ensuing kickoff, Dexter Carter ran 98 yards in, around and through the Saints cover team to give the home team a 14-7 lead. Morten Andersen drew the Saints closer with a 52-yard field goal to close the half, but Mike Cofer matched that with a 42-yarder of his own, and the Niners led 17-10.
The Saints tied the game on a 6-yard run by Fred McAfee, and a 3-yard TD pass from Walsh to Turner gave the Saints a 24-17 lead entering the fourth quarter. But before I could light the victory cigar, Carter caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bono to tie the game and a few minutes later “Sonny” hit Jerry Rice for a 47-yard strike to put the Niners up. The Saints did not score again in the 38-24 Niners’ victory, reminding all disbelievers that Steve Bono had the same team around him that had made Montana and Young so dominant.
Flash back to today. Our local heroes are now 2-1 against three teams that made the playoffs last year, and they face another one with the 3-0 Cowboys coming to town next week. The Saints started the season with the toughest schedule in the league, and after Brees went down the naysayers came out in force. But another team effort on Sunday will put the league on notice that the Saints are resilient, talented and more than up to the task of surviving without Drew Brees. Just ask Sonny Bono!
Many years ago when my nephews and nieces were young enough to watch Mardi Gras parades on my shoulders, I suffered one major injury in the practice. A nephew was tired of his lofty perch and asked Uncle Jim to let him down. I proceeded to do so by reaching up and locking my four fingers under his armpits to lift him off and put him safely on the ground. But during the process, he apparently saw an attractive float coming up and decided he wanted to stay where he was. Without telling me.
When I placed my fingers under his armpits and pushed up, he locked down and a sharp pain from the middle finger and ring finger on my right hand suddenly shot down into my wrist. It hurt like hell, and Uncle Jim was done for the evening as a convenient perch. The true fallout came the next day when I tried to play golf, but when I tried to grip the club with my right hand, the hand gave way and the club fell to the ground. I had badly strained a ligament, and I would be on the sidelines for nearly a month.
This little episode did not affect anyone on the planet but me, but I remember it in empathy when I saw Saints QB Drew Brees ram his right thumb into Rams’ defensive lineman Aaron Donald. He went to the sideline for treatment, but when he tried to pick up a ball, he dropped it like a hornet's nest.The verdict Monday was that Brees tore a ligament that will likely keep him out of the lineup for at least six weeks.
The Saints have not released an official statement as of this writing, but Dr. Gleb Medvedev, an orthopedic hand surgeon at Tulane, told the Advocate it was likely the ulnar collateral ligament which is located in the area where the thumb meets the hand. An unfortunate event for the Saints and bad mojo for sure, but we all knew the day was coming when Brees would prove to be mortal. That day might be here. Or, he could heal to the point where he could return to the starting lineup and lead the Saints to another Super Bowl victory. This entire situation could be merely another hurdle that champions overcome or it could be disastrous.
What happens next will largely depend on Brees’ replacement. You will note that I did not immediately anoint backup QB Teddy Bridgewater as the place-holder for Brees. I have watched him closely, as you have, during the preseason and during most of Sunday’s 27-9 loss to the Rams. I know Bridgewater is the highest-paid backup QB in the league, which is based on his years as the starting QB in Minnesota in 2014-15. Bridgewater was selected to play in the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season in which the Vikings won their first division title since 2009. He received that honor despite ranking No. 21 among the league's quarterbacks that year, according to NFL Reference.com.The next season a horrific knee injury kept him in the training room for nearly two seasons.
Coaches and personnel guys will tell you there are not that many quality quarterbacks in the league. I am talking about QB’s who can get your team through a game in which the starting QB is injured or, in the Saints’ case, step in and seamlessly run one of the better offenses in the NFL for several games. I use that phrase guardedly, because our hometown heroes looked anything but a potent offensive juggernaut after Bridgewater came into the game. To my eyes, Bridgewater just has not been that impressive at running the Saints' offense. But I am not the coach.
I expect Coach Sean Payton to hand the ball to Bridgewater in Seattle on Sunday and expect him to perform at a high level. I believe Payton appreciated Bridgewater’s decision to re-sign with the Saints after his one-year contract expired last season. On Bridgewater’s part, it was a gutsy, yet rational move, to turn down a lucrative offer to become the Miami Dolphins’ starter and continue to grow under Payton and Brees. An element of his decision had to be the possibility of one day succeeding Brees as the starter.
Bridgewater now has that opportunity, but I do not believe it will be an extended audition. I believe Payton will give Bridgewater every chance to succeed, within limits. Sean Payton wants to win, and if Teddy Bridgewater can’t do that, the coach will not hesitate to insert Taysom Hill, everybody’s favorite handyman, into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
The first week of the NFL season has come and gone, and not much has changed. The Browns are still terrible, the Patriots are still dominating and injuries are becoming more of a concern. But, locally, the old news is that game officials still shoot themselves in the foot, as we saw on Monday Night Football.
After a frustrating off-season of lawsuits, rules changes and proposed movies, none of it flattering to game officials, many Saints fans chose a fashion statement as their weapon, leaving their Black and Gold wardrobes in mothballs and entered the Superdome wearing notorious black and white stripes. Some striped shirts carried messages such as “Thief,” emblazoned where the nameplate should be, and others carried yellow flags, symbolizing the flags that weren't thrown in last year's NFC championship game. The appearance of Monday night's game officials brought the expected chorus of boooos, but it was not long before Who Dat Nation was reminded who was really in charge.
The league zebras inflicted an additional dose of derision to Saints fans in front of a national audience. The Saints were driving inside a minute to cut into a 14-3 Texans’ lead, but a botched call cost a precious 15 seconds taken off the clock. That could have been enough time for QB Drew Brees to have run two more plays and gotten closer than the 56-yard attempt they were left with that kicker Wil Lutz missed. At least, NFL director of officiating Al Riveron admitted the error at halftime, although it did not appease Brees. “That can’t happen,” he said after the game. “If we have 15 more seconds, are you kidding me? You know we’re gonna get closer. That’s a game changer!”
They tried to do it again in the fourth quarter after Houston tied the game with 37 seconds left but missed the extra point. But wait a minute! A Saints’ player hit the ground in front of kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and brushed his foot. Fairbairn must have majored in acting at UCLA because he dropped to the ground in a dramatic performance worthy of Laurence Olivier in Hamlet. That prompted another flag for roughing the kicker, and the ensuing re-kick put Houston up 28-27. ESPN announcer Booger McFarland described it on air as "a ticky-tack call at this point of the game." In other words, to quote Brees: “Are you kidding me?”
Fortunately, the Saints’ QB was fired up enough to show the NFL what he can do with a dying clock and one time out. His pass to Ted Ginn put the ball at the Texans’ 40-yard line with two seconds left, enough for Lutz’s 58-yard game winner. Whether the officials just panic in the closing minute or it's something more nefarious, the NFL could not have sent a more hurtful message to New Orleans, delivered on its national Monday Night billboard: “We screwed you out of a Super Bowl last year, and we can do it again this year because we are in charge!”
Another story that occupied far too much attention during the opening weekend was the curious case of Antonio Brown. Although he was one of the most productive receivers in the league during six seasons with the Steelers, the Pittsburgh brass tired of his selfish antics and traded him to Oakland at the fire-sale price of two mid-level draft choices. Oakland, whose founding father Al Davis burnished the team’s reputation as mavericks and rebels, sounded like the perfect spot for Brown. His new boss would be Jon Gruden, the sneering head coach whose nickname Chucky comes from a demonic doll in a horror movie. Perfect fit, right?
Wrong, because Brown’s shenanigans bit the hand that was going to pay him a guaranteed $30 million. He was cut Saturday morning and by sundown had been signed by the Patriots, the most recent safe harbor for dysfunctional characters. In recent years, the Patriots have taken in such perceived trouble-makers as Randy Moss and Corey Dillon.
I imagine Coach Bill Belichick has a sports psychologist on speed-dial to address the multitude of behavioral oddities that Brown has displayed. Brown obviously is arrogant, although that is not a fatal flaw in his industry. Belichick obviously believes he can harness Brown’s behavior because he did it with Moss and Dillon. But does Brown’s vision of his importance to New England mesh with Belichick’s vision of how Brown fits with the Patriots? Will Brown realize that he needs the Patriots more than they need him? Delusional behavior can be fatal if he believes he is more important than the team.
But maybe winning is the cure. Moss and Dillon became valuable team members and won Super Bowl rings. My feeling is that Brown’s fuse is a lot shorter than Moss’. I believe he needs professional help, and I am not talking sports.