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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

USA women athletes excel in Rio, but is it enough?

by J.W. Miller on 08/22/16

As a former college athletic director, I saw both sides of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that barred sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal money. I experienced the juggling act which forced cash-strapped programs to cut men’s sports rather than add women’s sports to achieve gender equality. But the argument that the law discriminated against men pales sadly after American women athletes again proved their superiority on a global scale at the Rio Olympics. 

American women were an afterthought at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the last one before Title IX, winning just 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women were absent from the medal podium in gymnastics. They didn't win a single gold in track and field, managing just one silver and two bronze. In Rio, American women won 61 medals, including 27 golds, versus 55 total and 18 golds for the men. Another five medals, including one gold, came in mixed competitions. That trend began at the 2012 Olympics in London when U.S. women for the first time won more medals than the men - 58 to 45. London also marked the first time the U.S. sent more women to the games than men, which again occurred in  Rio where American women outnumbered men 292 to 263. 

Today, Title IX is given much of the credit for revolutionizing women's sports, and the last two Olympics offer one measure of how dramatic that transformation has been. But is it enough? Some critics believe the next battleground is the fight for respect for women athletes. When Corey Cogdell-Unrein of the U.S. Olympic team won a bronze medal in women’s trap shooting, the Chicago Tribune reported the news, but left out a key detail: her name. It described her only as the wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein. The Tribune story generated some snarky tweets, including one that said: “Congrats to that Bears lineman who apparently deserves all the credit here.” Another sarcastic observer wrote on Twitter: “But what does her dad do? Or her brother? I need to know more about this Olympian’s male relatives!” 

The issue has shifted from the number of women participating in the Olympics to the media’s characterization of them more as appendages of their husbands, fathers or male coaches than as elite athletes in their own right. According to a weekend story in the New York Times, verbal offenses that look like sexism are called out almost daily by readers and viewers. The instances have been so frequent that news sites have been able to build lists of the most boneheaded examples. 

NBC’s Al Trautwig, who saw Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands writing in a notebook after completing her balance beam routine, wondered aloud if Wevers might’ve been writing in her diary, a decidedly feminine cliché. Retired gymnast and current Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin was quick to inform Trautwig that Wevers was likely using the notebook to calculate her scores. And then there was the praise heaped upon Andy Murray by BBC presenter John Inverdale, who mentioned that Murray was the first "person" ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. Murray looked up curiously and responded: “I think Venus and Serena (Williams) have won about four each.”

And the battle rages.

If Peter Finney was Ruth, then Bob Roesler was Gehrig

by J.W. Miller on 08/14/16

To say that Peter Finney’s long career as a New Orleans writer and sports columnist lasted a lifetime is not an exaggeration. In fact, it lasted 68 years, which, according to the current Gregorian calendar, I achieved on my last birthday. Man, that’s a long time for one person to be doing the same thing, but the tributes that have rolled in since Pete Finney died Saturday morning at age 88, suggest that every day of those 68 years was a day well spent. 

As a young sporting writer at the Baltimore Evening Sun, I was familiar with Finney and his work, but I had never met him. I was more friendly with the New Orleans NFL beat guys such as Dave Lagarde and Will Peneguy, but after I moved on to the NFL and then to the Saints I saw Finney’s impact. His face appeared on page 1 of the sports section five days a week, informing, cajoling and advising his readers on the topic of the day. If he had been born a few years earlier, ESPN would have called and asked him to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with a nation of sports maniacs, but Pete would probably have declined. He was a New Orleans guy, born in the French Quarter, educated at Jesuit and Loyola, and probably would have felt uneasy talking about things anywhere else. 

Pete Finney was clearly the Babe Ruth of New Orleans sports journalism. But as the Ruthian legend is not complete without a chapter on Lou Gehrig, the Peter Finney story is not complete without a mention of another giant in New Orleans journalism, Bob Roesler. It is hard to think of one without the other, especially if you knew them or were a regular reader of their columns. A review of their columns over the years shows different styles, both directed at informing the fans by giving them a seat on the sidelines, the draft room or in the executive suite. 

Roesler was the diplomat or statesman whose writing was aimed at long-term goals and solutions, like how to keep the Superdome as a first-class facility or what impact a Super Bowl would have on New Orleans. Finney, on the other hand, gave fans a daily perspective of their team’s current condition. If the fans wore paper bags on their heads when the Saints did poorly, Finney’s columns sounded like he was wearing a bag when he wrote them. Even when a new administration took over the Saints, as we did in 1986, he was telling his people not to get too excited. 

“A good start,” said Finney's lead after new head coach Jim Mora’s first game, a 10-7 preseason victory at Denver. But Finney was not about to jump on the bandwagon yet, as he cautioned a few paragraphs later: “History tells us it’s foolish to get excited over what happens when a team is taking its exhibition cuts.” Indeed, the next season, after a nine-game winning streak and the team’s first playoff appearance seemed to wipe away twenty years of misery, Finney perfectly described the feeling of a long-suffering Who Dat Nation after Minnesota's 44-10 annihilation. “They came to watch the Benson Boogie at a Viking funeral. Instead, what they got was a trip into the past.” 

Over the years, I became close to both men’s sons, interestingly enough, independently of their fathers. Pete Jr. was a writer with The Times-Picayune who had a brief fling at the New York Daily News when I was at the NFL office. After I came to the Saints, a member of our medical orthopedic team was Dr. Tim Finney, who still toils on the Sunday sidelines. The third Finney son, Mike, is a golf pro in Louisville who my brother Jerry came to know as an assistant pro at Valhalla, the frequent PGA stop. Mike arranged for Jerry and I to play the private course that once was a dairy farm where our father picked up milk. 

I became acquainted with Bob’s son Toby when our children attended St. Dominic School together and since as members of the same monthly Bible, book and beverage club. Toby keeps me posted on his dad, who is not doing so well these days. He and wife Chloe have long moved out of the Lakefront home they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, and dementia has slowed him down. But as the tributes rolled in for his colleague this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Bob and Pete together, as an ink-stained entry that kept New Orleans sports journalism at the top of their profession for a lifetime. 

Hall of Fame could have inducted Favre as a Saint!

by J.W. Miller on 08/08/16

Sorry that the cancellation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame game delayed your football Jones for another week. But hang in there! You can make it until Thursday when our local heroes open the 2016 preseason at New England. Although a game where the starters might go in for one series is not what Saints fans have been waiting nearly eight months for, but it IS football. Kinda sorta. And Who Dats did have the opportunity to both cheer and gnash their teeth during the Hall of Fame induction. 

There was a definite New Orleans flair among the inductees, some eliciting pleasant memories and others not-so. Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., owned the 49ers Evil Empire that the Saints never seemed to conquer. Kenny “Snake” Stabler limped through the end of a great career when he played the Saints from 1982-84. Dick Stanfel was interim head coach during an abysmal 1980 season. But among the inductees lurks the largely unknown fact that Brett Favre could have played the bulk of his Hall of Fame career in a Saints uniform. You never heard that? Well, here’s the story: 

The Saints had a marvelous year in 1992, finishing 12-4 before blowing a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and losing a shocking playoff game to Philadelphia. Defense was the team’s strength, and GM Jim Finks still had not forgiven QB Bobby Hebert for his season-long holdout in 1990. Hebert’s contract had expired, and Finks was more than willing to let him go and look elsewhere. We signed journeyman Wade Wilson for the 1993 season, which suddenly darkened with Finks' illness. Despite a 5-0 start, the team limped home with an 8-8 record.  

Coach Jim Mora and player personnel director Bill Kuharich started working to fix the most critical position on the field. Interestingly, the Packers had a young QB who was a restricted free agent and might be available. Brett Favre was a Mississippi boy from Kiln, less than an hour from New Orleans, and had grown up a Saints fan. He was more than willing to come in for a visit. Kuharich arranged for Favre to visit the Saints facility and work out for Mora and quarterback coach Carl Smith. As the primary contracts negotiator, I also witnessed Favre’s workout. This all must be put into the context of time. We were not watching a certain Hall of Famer that sultry morning but a 24-year-old quarterback in his third year in the League. 

Even then, Favre was known as an erratic gunslinger. He had thrown 19 touchdown passes in 1993, but he also had thrown 24 interceptions, and his passer rating of 72.2 was near the bottom of all starting quarterbacks. The Packers had gone 9-7, but their quarterback was far from a finished product. Kuharich and the coaches insisted that Favre’s visit include a workout, and Favre readily agreed. That turned out to be a bad decision. Favre’s throws that morning to a forgotten receiver were long, low, high and short. I remember the expressions of those watching ranged from disappointment to disbelief. 

Nobody issued Finks' standard line when cutting players – “give him an apple and a road map” – but we thanked Favre for coming and sent him on his way. It was clear the Saints would not make an offer that the Packers could match anyway, but it always made me wonder "what if" Favre had blown our socks off during that workout and we had gone all-out to sign him? It would have avoided the next three frustrating years with Jim Everett at the helm followed by a decade of pretenders in the “BB” era, before Brees. 

What if?

Ex-UNO swim coach Horner is coaching at the Olympics!

by J.W. Miller on 08/04/16

If you have a Facebook account, you probably receive a daily handful of messages, birthday announcements, invitations and videos from friends, acquaintances and total strangers who are friend-of-friends. But I’ll bet you’ve never gotten a message from the Botswana Olympic Team! I received such a message this week, a few days before the 2016 Olympics opens in Rio de Janeiro on Friday night. 

I don’t know anybody in Botswana. I even had to consult a map that informed me the tiny African nation occupies much of the northern border of the Republic of South Africa. However, things became clear when I saw that the sender was a guy I hired when I was AD at the University of New Orleans. Randy Horner, who served as UNO’s swimming coach from 2007 to 2010, is in Rio coaching Botswana’s swim team. 

You are forgiven if you think Botswana's Olympic swim team might draw comparisons to the less-than-legendary Jamaican bobsled team of the 1988 Calgary Games. Horner's entire team consists of two swimmers. Naomi Ruele, competing in the 50-meter women’s freestyle, attends Florida International University where Horner has been head coach since he left UNO. Horner’s other participant is Nova Southeastern University’s David Van Der Colffin, who will compete in the 100-meter backstroke. 

Horner’s Facebook video from Rio provided a close-up of the Olympic swimming venue as well as a tour of the athletes’ dormitory. It was spartan but hardly resembled the cesspool depicted in recent stories. So much negative news has been written about the Rio Olympics that I’m almost expecting the biggest medal winner this year to be the Mayhem guy from the Allstate commercial. For more than a year, the event has been beset by problems. It started with construction overruns and union problems with workers building the venues, and since then it seems like almost every week a new crisis erupts. 

Brazil and much of Central and South America have been submerged in a health crisis with the rise of the Zika virus. Many of the world’s top golfers have declined to participate in the Games, including the acknowledged top three in the world – Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. Other sports also have been affected. American cyclist Tejay van Garderen cited Zika as his reason for not going to Rio, and while basketball star Stephen Curry didn’t specifically cite Zika, he noted that “other factors” played a role in his decision to skip the games. 

More recently, pollution problems in Rio de Janeiro have gotten so bad that officials moving sailing or rowing boats are using gloves, medical staff are on standby to treat infectious cuts and athletes must shower immediately after leaving the water. Sewage continues to pour into Guanabara Bay which will host the triathlon, sailing and marathon swimming events. Despite new measures taken by the teams, a 16-month testing program showed 1,400 athletes 'face potentially serious health risks' - as do any Olympic tourists who choose to swim at Copacabana Beach. 

More menacing are threats of violence that have prompted Olympics officials and police to step up security efforts. A story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal described a police crackdown on drug syndicates that could use the global event as a chance to embarrass Brazilian authorities and police. And, unfortunately, the threat of terrorism lingers anyplace where large numbers of people gather. 

Whatever happens - all of it uneventful, we pray - Randy Horner will be there to see it. His FIU swimmer, Naomi, does not compete until next Friday, August 12, against strong swimmers from Australia and the Netherlands. That means her Olympic moment will likely be short, a fact that Horner understands. “I’m here for three weeks for a 25-second race,” he responded when I texted my congratulations. “But, hey, it’s still the Olympics!”

Training camp is the best time of year for Who Dat Nation!

by J.W. Miller on 07/25/16

Attention, Who Dat Nation! Summer camp opens this week, your team is still undefeated, draft picks will surely become instant contributors, signed free agents will compete for Comeback Player of the Year and other starters will ascend to the Pro Bowl netherworld. Summer will end someday, and the air is beginning to blow cooler with football talk. How can this not be the best time of the year? And this year, I might just jump on the bandwagon. 

I am a generally optimistic guy, often over-estimating my favorite teams’ potential, but hope is always better than pessimism. Who wants to go into a season bemoaning another collapse when the new season could be “The Year!” But this year I actually see things that fuel my optimism and suggest to me the Saints will temper the fans’ frustration. Several reasons fuel my optimism, not the least of which is the belief that QB Drew Brees can continue his high-level play and leadership for at least one more year. 

I’ve taken shots at Brees and his agent for their negotiating style and tactics of the past, but my prejudice is more from 20 years in NFL management, all of it on the opposite side of the Players’ Association and agents. There is no doubt that Brees has the heart of a lion and is the unquestioned leader of this team. I just hope he and agent Tom Condon realize that the club has no good reason to hand him a three- or four-year extension in the $22-milion per year range. (See column below.) Brees needs to deflect any more questions about his contract and concentrate on football. Go out and have another good year, lead the team back to the playoffs and then you will have negotiating leverage this time next year.

Absent any of the above, and it is likely that Brees will be forced to take the same path that other future Hall-of-Famers like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Joe Montana and even Johnny Unitas had to take. Finishing your career in another uniform other than the one where you saw your greatest moments is not the ideal scenario, but it is reality in the Salary Cap era. 

While Brees is the best reason for optimism this season, No. 2 is the club's efforts to address its most glaring problem. It’s sad when your offense is near the top of the league year after year and your defense is near the bottom. That has contributed to the helpless sense among Who Dats that no matter how many points the Saints score or how far ahead they get, there’s a great chance for an implosion in the fourth quarter. That’s been the case in three of the last four years, and fixing that was the No. 1 priority for the Saints’ cut-and-paste squad.

LB James Laurinaitis and DL Nick Fairley were good free agent signings and should give new coordinator Dennis Allen some stability up front. No. 1 pick Sheldon Rankins of Louisville looks the part and could step into a starting position while second-year LB Stephone Anthony showed early signs of brilliance last year. DE Cameron Jordan is reaching his peak and gives the defense some rare Pro Bowl swagger. The secondary should show addition by subtraction, meaning they instantly are better with Brandon Browner someplace else. If they can remain healthy, the unit of corners Keenan Lewis and Delvin Breaux and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro could be among the best in the league. The problem is that this group has never been able to remain healthy, which means the team has been forced to finish the season with perennial backups in the irons. Jim Finks used to say that injuries are the worst things about sports because no matter how well a team drafts, scouts and secures players, players aren’t much help if they can’t stay on the field. 

Back to offense, Brees has two solid receivers in Brandin Cooks and last year’s rookie surprise, Willie Snead, and rookie Michael Thomas is a big body who will be groomed to replace the retired Marques Colston. TE Coby Fleener probably isn’t as good as his contract implies, but with Brees he has the opportunity to emerge as a credible midfield threat. RB Mark Ingram has secured his place as a hard running, pass-catching weapon, while C.J. Spiller could finally become the third-down option that he displayed in last year’s thrilling victory over Dallas. The offensive line instantly became better last year with the addition of C Max Unger and the emergence of LT Terron Armistead. On special teams, Thomas Morstead is one of the league’s top punters, although one of the goals in training camp will be to find a placekicker. 

Running through this roster is one more reason I believe the Saints will bounce back this season, and that is character. GM Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have brought in very few players whose personnel folder was stamped with the big red “C” for “character problems.” In the NFL and most professional sports, having good character does not guarantee superior performance, but good players with good character can go a long way. They might not overtake Carolina this season, but 10-6 should get them in the playoffs, where anything can happen.

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