The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Sports is a wonderful thing, but it’s not perfect, and two reasons why it's not perfect are injuries and officiating that we think hurts our team’s chance of winning. I thought about that this week in the context of two prominent events: The NFL convened its annual owners’ meeting, and the NCAA men’s basketball championship is down to the Sweet 16. Two topics among both colleges and the NFL have been injuries and bad calls, and we can wail and moan and huss and fuss, but there's not a darned thing we can do about either!
Let’s talk about injuries first. College and pro teams hire the best medical and training professionals, refine conditioning methods and spend millions for the best equipment available to make their athletes better able to endure the rigors of their individual sport. Still, we as fans are left holding our breath and crossing our fingers that the “injury bug” doesn’t bite important players on our favorite teams.
That topic is close to my heart at the moment, because Kentucky’s chances in the next round of NCAA tournament play will depend largely on the status of their leader, forward P.J. Washington. The team's top scorer and rebounder during the season, Washington sprained his foot with two minutes to go in their SEC tournament loss to Tennessee and has been idle ever since. The Wildcats have survived the first two NCAA tournament games through good defense and contributions from the rest of the lineup, but their chances of going much further diminish without Washington.
Friday night against Houston will be a major test with Washington or without him, and if they pass that one, they will face either North Carolina or Auburn. Kentucky beat both of them during the season, but with Washington. Big Blue Nation cardholders are wringing their hands and still have nightmares of past injuries to players such as Mike Casey, Derek Anderson, Keith Bogans and Nerlens Noel that might have cost them national championships.
So you’re a Duke fan and don’t care? That’s a good segue to a subject you do care about: controversial officiating. That is a hot topic this morning in the NCAA tournament, especially if you saw the final seconds of the Duke – Central Florida game Sunday. UCF ahead by three and poised to spring an upset of the kind UMBC and Loyola of Chicago pulled last year. But it appeared to some that Duke’s star Zion Williamson, driving to the basket, steamrolled UCF big man Tacko Fall. Not so, said the refs, who called a blocking foul and Fall fouled out.
Zion missed the FT that would have tied the game, but teammate R.J. Barrett leaped over a UCF player for the rebound and the winning putback. Did Barrett push off to get position? Some would argue he did. But he didn’t, at least according to the officials. Those calls could have gone either way, but didn’t. And we sure know about no-calls down here in Who Dat Nation, don’t we?
Since we are talking about injuries and officiating, I think it is ironic that the no-call controversy in the Rams game was not over a helmet to helmet hit so much as pass interference. As much as the NFL harped on the injury issue all last season, to have them miss a major injury-related offense is what really blew my skirts up.
At some point this week, the NFL Competition Committee will discuss changes that could reverse poor calls. Under one proposal, replay would be expanded for one year during which time the list of reviewable plays would be expanded to include fouls for pass interference. The rule proposal would also expand automatic replay reviews to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a foul and any point-after attempt following a touchdown. It might make us as fans feel better when a league tries to remedy bad calls or no-calls that hurt our favorite team, but it won’t stop them. Even worse, the new interpretation might just work against our favorite team the first time it is implemented in live action.
To review, the two worst things in our little sporting worlds are injuries and officiating calls that go the other way. They affect our dreams, they dash our hopes, they curb our enthusiasm for the events we love. You can love sports, but just understand that love of sports doesn't mean sports loves you back.
In the thrilling days of my yesteryear - January, 1981, to be exact - I was sent to New Orleans by the Baltimore Evening Sun to cover Super Bowl XV between the Raiders and Eagles. I did not know it at the time, but it would be the last Super Bowl I covered as a reporter before fleeing journalism for the NFL office a few months later. I had become friendly with a Pittsburgh writer named John Clayton, and a few days before the game we went researching Bourbon Street and looking for a place to eat.
We walked into a couple of restaurants, which were expectedly full, and then we walked into a nice-looking place that featured more empty tables than customers. We asked if they were open, and the maitre’d apologetically told us that the restaurant had just opened that week, hopefully to take advantage of the Super Bowl crowds. And, by the way, sit anywhere you like, which we did. The meal was delightful, and I think I wrote a story about the best unknown restaurant in New Orleans. Word obviously spread quickly because the restaurant, named “Mr. B’s,” likely has not been that empty since.
This is the long version of how I began a long friendship with NFL expert John Clayton, who started out covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as understudy to the legendary Vito Stellino, and then rose quickly to become ESPN’s go-to guy on NFL machinations. After the network trimmed its on-air staff last year, Clayton joined the Washington Post where he continues giving his readers probably the best coverage and historic NFL insight in the country.
And how does this apply to our subject of the day, you ask? Saturday Clayton wrote a story about the conundrum within NFL free agency, which has been a favored recent subject of Who Dat Nation. Clayton’s message: Don’t confuse price vs. value. It is easy to read his story and think about the Saints’ history at letting go veterans and replacing them with free agents. Mark Ingram had value, both on the field and in the locker room. But the price he wanted was out of the Saints comfort range so they let him walk and signed a cheaper version, ex-Viking Latavius Murray. Hopefully, his value will rise to Ingram proportions and it will be a logical swap.
It hasn’t always been that way. Think Jairus Byrd over Malcolm Jenkins or T.J. Spiller over Darren Sproles? How about Brandon Browner over the moths in your closet? Coby Fleener, James Laurinaitis, and others you can name cost money but added little to no value. Clayton also cautioned teams that pay big bucks to become the “winners” of NFL free agency. “It’s rare that the cost actually pays off,” Clayton wrote.
Some evidence he presented included these facts: (1) Of the 49 highest paid players in 2016 free agency, only 14 remain on the teams that signed them. (2) Of the 60 highest paid players in 2017 free agency, only 22 remain. (3) Of players from the 2018 free-agent class who received $5 million per year or more, 14 are already no longer with the teams that signed them. Did you know that only two unrestricted free agents from 2018 made the Pro Bowl? The casualty list is much higher. The Panthers cut left tackle Matt Kalil, who signed a five-year, $55 million contract in 2017. The Bucs traded WR DeSean Jackson, who signed a three-year, $35 million contract in 2017. The Giants and Browns swapped the second highest paid free agency of 2016 (Oliver Vernon) for the sixth highest paid free agent in 2017 (Kevin Zeitler).
Why does this continue to happen? Among other reasons, Clayton cited the high expectations and the stakes of paying high prices so when things don’t go well, teams are less shy about cutting high price players whose performances never achieved value. “In NFL free agency,” Clayton wrote, “there are more failures than successes.”
Thankfully, the Saints haven’t tried to “win” free agency in recent years as much as replacing starters or bolstering depth. This year, our local heroes have been active in free agency, but the prices they have paid haven’t been huge. That makes the expectations of value a bit more realistic. And if that value helps them get back to the Super Bowl, I will invite John Clayton back to Mr. B's.
I remember when my older daughter received her driver’s license and she quickly proceeded to display some of her dad’s lesser qualities behind the wheel. Specifically, she had a lead foot! But after a handful of contacts with the local constabulary, I sat her down and asked her what about the speed limit was confusing. I’ll never forget her answer: “Daddy, the speed limit is only a suggestion, not an absolute!” Ah, the wisdom of a 16-year-old in Louisiana!
The same type of logic was on display Saturday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center where LSU clinched their first regular season SEC basketball championship since 2009. But before the Tigers pummeled Vanderbilt to assure the title, the LSU student section decided that AD Joe Alleva’s suspension of Coach Will Wade was an affront to Tiger pride and dignity. No matter that the head coach was caught on an FBI wiretap allegedly discussing payments to recruit Javonte Smart’s family.
Alleva, understanding that such an activity violates major NCAA rules, moved quickly to insulate his program from major sanctions if the charges are proven. He suspended Wade “indefinitely” and ordered Smart to sit this one out and maybe all tournament games the Tigers play this year. But the less-than-understanding student body would have none of it presumably because rules are merely suggestions. Or was it because Wade got caught? No matter, their message to Alleva: What are you doing? You are ruining our best basketball season in a decade. The repercussions of your actions will derail any hopes of contending for an NCAA championship! Joe, you’ve got to go.
Thirty minutes before the game, chants and signs clearly stated “Joe Must Go,” and others popped up, urging Alleva to “Free Will Wade.” The message then disintegrated into chants of the more to-the-point “(Bleep) Joe!” Of course, all this is Alleva’s fault. None of the blame can be laid at the feet of a fast-talking, free-wheeling coach who rose up the coaching ladder at a young age. But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we?
Remember “Bountygate,” when Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams rewarded Saints players for big hits and other antics intended to put the so-called bad guys out of the game. Was that against the rules? Of course it was, and the Saints paid dearly for it, literally and figuratively. Cash fines, suspensions and an eternal stain on an organization that was perceived to be a rock of stability and doing things the right way. Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year and draft choices were taken, all of which put the team back at least two years.
But who did the fans blame? Certainly not Payton, whose job it was to know everything about his team and coaches. Certainly not the players who participated in the scheme. Gregg Williams deservedly took his share of blame, but in the fans’ eyes the league was the bad guy. How dare they do this to a recent Super Bowl champion? So I guess in Louisiana the rules against such behavior are just suggestions that bend the interpretation from “thou shalt not” to “thou should not, but if you don’t get caught it’s okay!”
Will Wade will likely never coach another game at LSU, nor should he if he is guilty. I’m with Dick Vitale on his assessment of the LSU situation, which he tweeted Saturday. Vitale said Wade’s actions “humiliated and disgraced” the university and said the true fans are “sick and saddened” at the revelations. Dickie V also had a message for the fans who are protesting the suspension: “Get Real!” Rules are not suggestions to be ignored when it’s convenient.
Today’s screed will be worth exactly what you are paying to read it. The reason? Because it’s all about poor, poor, pitiful me, who is sitting inside my warm little Gulf Coast cottage while that beautiful, beckoning golf course outside my window is being whipped by yet another unseasonably glacial gale. (Try saying that three times in a row!) Presently, the temperature is 40, the wind chill is 32 and I am sitting here wondering why in the first week of March, I can't be where I want to be! Out there, flailing away with a hickory switch!
I know I'm not getting much sympathy from folks further north. My poor brother in Louisville is experiencing another 20-degree day with more snow on the way, and it's worse in other places. But I'm not in other places. I'm in the sunny South, which is sunny and South but that's about it.
Oh, I could Eskimo up and waddle to my cart in a thermal body suit, which is like bundling myself in six down comforters. But try swinging a golf club from inside six down comforters. And even if I chose to do so, we’ve had so much rain this winter that the two courses in my community have restricted golfers to the cart path almost weekly since Thanksgiving. Restricting carts to the cart path really cuts down on the fun and camaraderie of like-minded souls. I play with a senior group, many of whom choose not to walk all over the course to retrieve their ball. They’ve been forced to shut it down for much of the winter.
Oh, the humanity!
No doubt, many golfers tougher than I will ride past today in their tented carts and battery-operated heaters and pretend to be comfortable. I’m the only guy in my group that does not have retractable side panels to protect against wind, rain or cold. It’s not because I’m stubborn. Cheap maybe, but not stubborn. No, my attitude regarding plexiglas drapes on my golf cart is simple: If it’s so cold, windy or wet that I need protection inside my cart, then it’s too cold, windy or wet to play golf!
The only sop to inclement weather that I might consider is a charcoal brazier. That would make sense. I could fire it up, keep it stoked with fallen branches or twigs and even grill burgers at the turn for my buddies. It’s well vented, as the smoke from the brazier would drift out from my open cart. But I’d have to make sure the wind is always “from left to right,” as Jim Nantz would say. Otherwise, smoke blowing into my face would cause bigger problems, specifically the other type of grilling, the one I’d get from the Lovely Miss Jean for coming home smelling like a roadhouse dive.
Even If I could endure the cold or windy conditions, I’d still have to deal with slogging my way around our saturated courses. I have enough problems chipping on dry grass, but my game really gets mired down when I’m forced to chip off mud. Don’t like it. Can’t do it. Even shots a bit further out demand protective glasses so the splash of the club through the muck doesn’t blind me. Maybe I should invest in a biker’s helmet with a strong eye shield. I couldn’t see the ball, but my game isn’t that finely tuned anyway.
Yes, I’m ready for dry, warm and grassy golf. Short sleeves, warm temperatures and divots that fly up behind my shot instead of what we have now. I feel like I am swinging an oar, trying to knock a cherry off the top of a bowl of vanilla pudding. That is soggy golf, my friend! And I’m sick of soggy golf! It’s time for spring.
I’ve known quite a few owners of professional sports teams over the years. Like any cluster of human beings with similar interests, owners run the gamut from solid citizens to those who compel you to count your fingers after you shake their hand. I bring this up after Bob Kraft, owner of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, was charged last week with frequenting a massage parlor where, for the bargain price of $79 an hour, he apparently enjoyed the pleasures of ladies specially trained in pleasuring horny old men.
For an even better bargain price of zero, local sporting fans are taking great pleasure in Kraft’s dilemma, only because it puts their favorite sports commissioner, Roger Goodell, in a precarious position. Goodell and Kraft once worked very closely on league business such as the mammoth television contract, but the relationship cooled after Kraft’s employees started bending league rules to the breaking point. In 2015, they filmed the other team’s defensive signals, which is against NFL rules, and two years later, they were caught deflating game footballs, making it easier for QB Tom Brady, who must have incredibly small hands, to get a better grip on the ball. (Forget what Trump said about small hands. When you’re married to fashion model Giselle Bundchen, it doesn’t matter!)
Kraft was fined for those improper acts, which widened the trust gap between the owner and the commissioner. So what will Goodell do with Kraft now? Since this infraction violates the league expectations of a higher standard for owners, I suspect Kraft will be fined seven figures and suspended from attending games for a large portion of the 2019 season.
Dan Jenkins’ classic “Mankind’s Ten Stages of Drunkenness” reminds me of Kraft. The first or second drink prompts a feeling of “witty and charming,” and anybody who has ever been around Kraft knows he can certainly charm wittily. A few drinks later comes “rich and powerful,” which is a fact of life among team owners. Hit me again and progress to “benevolent,” as every team owner can point to the millions they donate to charities. But then we drop down past several other characteristics of drinkers to the final two, “Invisible” and “Bulletproof.”
That not only perfectly describes smack-faced drunks but also team owners or any other self-important rogue or roguette who thinks they can do anything they want and nothing can touch them.
I had mentioned other owners I have known, and some had their own quirks and shortcomings. One owner worthy of note was Edgar Kaiser Jr. who owned the Broncos between 1981-84. He was not much a factor in league circles during his short term, but he became a legend after he and his wife became embroiled in a messy divorce. After agreeing to a settlement that gave Mrs. Kaiser their huge mansion, Edgar sent his construction crew out with bulldozers and leveled the building. His action was ruled outside the scope of the settlement.
During my three years with the Bears, Michael McCaskey was the team president. Despite being the grandson of founder George Halas, McCaskey was an academic and college professor who, as oldest son, was expected to come home and run the family business when Halas died in 1983. McCaskey never endeared himself to any segment of the organization, including the players. When the team built the new training center in Lake Forest, Michael installed a putting green just beyond one practice field. After one of the first practices in the new facility, a group of players took a slight detour to the locker room, walking across the putting green with two-inch spikes before returning to the building. Terrible fate for poa annua.
But Michael deserves credit for one thing. He once recommended a book to me that he said was ground-breaking and would become a classic. I was skeptical of a book about a boy wizard fighting the dark forces, but I read the book and I have every Harry Potter installment since. Thanks, Michael!
I’ve written enough about Tom Benson and my ten years working with him, and I will say that for all his personal quirks, Mistah Tawhm stands up pretty well against his fellow owners in the areas of integrity and dedication to winning. But I close with a story about my favorite owner, Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs.
When I was with the NFL Management Council, Lamar was a member of our executive committee of owners who helped determine the league’s positions on collective bargaining with the Players Association. During the 1982 strike, we convened a meeting of the executive committee in our New York office for a discussion on strategy. All the other committee members were in the room at the appointed hour, except Lamar Hunt. Nobody had heard from him in those days without texting or cell phones, so his whereabouts was a mystery to all of us.
About two hours after the meeting started, the door opened and in walked Lamar. Tex Schramm looked up and boomed as only Tex could: “Lamar, where the hell have you been?” The self-effacing Hunt looked up sheepishly and confessed: “When I got to the airport, my plane was overbooked. So they asked for volunteers to take the next flight, so I raised my hand.” “Why?” Schramm asked the man who probably could have bought and sold every other owner in the room. “Because I got a free flight out of it.”