The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Golf has a lot going for it, and I want to give you an Andy Rooney analysis of why I believe that! I thought about it while watching the PGA Championship during a weekend in which I took my own clubs out and pretended I could chip, putt and get out of sand traps like the stars! I never get that same feeling watching the NFL or basketball or baseball, because I last put on a helmet and pads in 1965, I can't reach the basket from the free throw line and I recorded my last safe hit in the previous century. But I love golf because it gives my athletic aspirations some hope!
Golf is the only major sport where the more experienced among us can watch the best players on television and then try to apply what they are doing to our modest games. Not that it always works so well but you get the idea. And there are other reasons. I like that watching golf is positive. You are rooting FOR players and not so much against them. Golf makes it hard to root against anybody. Sports is normally a 50-50 proposition. You either root FOR your team or AGAINST your team’s opponents. I root against the Yankees and the 49ers because as a Red Sox fan I grew up hating the Yankees and as a Saints executive I learned to hate the 49ers. But there's nobody in golf to hate.
Spain’s Jon Rahm is as close to a golf villain as exists today, because he’s been known to toss a club or two. But he’s no Francisco Franco, a reviled politician who became a running joke on Saturday Night Live. Bubba Watson is supposed to be a jerk at times, but I love to watch Bubba’s self-taught creativity and he’s got two green jackets hanging in his closet. Probably the recent golfer closest to villainhood was Tiger Woods in his prime, whose dominance made him the game’s equivalence to the Yankees or 49ers in their prime. But more fans watched golf on TV when Tiger was contending, which was every tournament he played. His ability to almost guide a long putt into the hole with Vulcan mind tricks was as dazzling as it was unbelievable. Jordan Spieth has some of that ability to drop in long putts when he is in contention, although he was never in the PGA championship after mediocre rounds on Thursday and Friday.
Some people don’t like Patrick Reed, who will never be a poker player because he wears his emotion on his sleeve. He was close to catching Justin Thomas late in the PGA championship, but he didn’t, and afterward you could tell he didn’t care if he finished tied for second or 50th. He didn’t win, and that’s why he showed up. I don’t penalize guys for showing emotion. Was there ever a more fun match to watch than Reed’s Ryder Cup singles win over Rory McIlroy last year when they matched radar-like chips and putts hole after hole?
I like that golfers pay their own expenses to tournaments. They don’t take team-funded transportation, wear team-provided uniforms and eat pregame meals provided by the team. A football or basketball or baseball player can win or lose and still get paid. A golfer must play well enough for the first two rounds before they get paid and keep playing well to determine how much. If they don't play well the first two days, they pack up early and travel to the next tournament.
I love that viewers feel they get to know the players in golf. They aren’t hidden by helmets or buried in wide shots of the field. Every one has a personality. Spieth is the boy next door, who plays like the assassin he is. I love the courtesy and professionalism of Spieth, who shows maturity well beyond his 24 years. Jason Day has a 100-watt smile that left him only briefly when his snowman at 18 on Saturday knocked him out of contention. That hole also showed that golfers are human. Did you ever see a worse decision in a professional golf tournament than when Day eschewed a punch-out to the fairway for an incredibly dangerous miracle shot through the trees? If you weren’t watching, it didn’t make it.
I love the fact that players who aren’t household names – Kevin Kisner, Chris Stroud, Jordan L. Smith – actually have a chance to win a major tournament on the final day. I like that golfers show their humility. After winning the PGA title Sunday, Thomas paid tribute to his father, who is a PGA professional at Harmony Landing in Louisville. And was there ever a more emotional finish than Davis Love III’s PGA title at Winged Foot in 1997 when he sank the winning putt under the arc of a rainbow that suddenly appeared, prompting announcer Jim Nantz to make the connection to Love’s father, a beloved golf pro who had died in 1988 at age 53. A little schmaltzy, but I like it.
I also like that golf is trying to expand its popularity by sponsoring shorter rounds for the public. Many courses now offer six-hole or per-hole rates for those who believe golf is not worth four hours of their day. I like the honor code of golf; there’s no other sport where the athlete is expected to call a foul on himself. Football players are always looking for an edge, whether it’s stickum on a receiver’s hands, lineman techniques that mask holding or an air pump in the equipment manager’s room.
There are no Deflategates in golf. Golfers don’t hold out for more money or a new contract. I also haven’t seen any golfers suspended for the first six tournaments of the season for using performance enhancing drugs. And in old age, golfers won’t be suffering brain damage for repeated concussions. They’ll be playing on the senior tour.
But probably the best thing I love about golf occurred Sunday, after the leaders had made the turn at Quail Hollow and were headed for the back nine. That’s when I hit the “record” button and went out and played golf.
I didn’t think Morten Andersen would ask me to present him when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. And he didn’t. You see, I happened to be the Saints executive who announced that Andersen was being cut in 1995 and for a time wore the horns as “the man who cut Morten.”
Of course, anybody who thought I had the authority to make personnel decisions probably also thought I gave financial advice to owner Tom Benson. But that’s beside the point. The decision to release Andersen was made in a meeting between head coach Jim Mora, personnel VP Bill Kuharich and me, the team’s Executive VP and salary cap manager. We were in the second year of the Salary Cap, and we were close to the Cap cliff, which is what happens when veteran teams that have had success try to keep as many of its key components as possible. You can’t keep them all, and sometimes your favorite team is forced into making a football decision for financial reasons, something Jim Finks had predicted before he left us.
Keep in mind that in the Cap’s early days, Benson had no interest in blanket renegotiations. His rationale was correct, that such now-common maneuvering was a way to skirt the Cap by pushing guaranteed money into future years. As chair of the Finance Committee, Benson was reluctant to take any measures that gave the appearance that his team was taking advantage of a loophole. His resolve was supported by the fact that arch-rival San Francisco wrote the early chapters of the book on Cap avoidance.
Benson's thought processes obviously have evolved since then, but in 1995 we needed about $1 million of relief. Three players with similar salaries could provide that relief: offensive guard Chris Port, defensive lineman Pig Goff and Andersen. Port was a starter, Goff was a solid backup and Andersen was 35 and his performance had declined the previous two years.
Reliable offensive and defensive linemen are hard to find, and Andersen appeared to be on the decline. His mid-range consistency, between 30 and 49 yards had been stable, but Andersen’s bread and butter was kickoffs in the end zone and long field goals beyond 50 yards. Between 1982 and 1992, Andersen was successful beyond 50 yards a remarkable 51% of the time. However, during 1993, he was 1 for 5, and in 1994 he missed all six of his long attempts. Declining performance, increasing age and high salary can put a player in Salary Cap purgatory.
The decision was made, and it was left to me to make the heretical announcement that one of the Saints most popular players was being terminated. What followed were two indelible memories forever etched into my psyche. The Falcons picked up Andersen immediately, and brought him back to the Superdome the following week. Truth is stranger than fiction, and Andersen’s performance against his old team contained a little of each. That week, he was four for four as the Falcons defeated the Saints, and in Atlanta he duplicated the performance, going four for four in another Falcon win. In two wins over his old team, he had kicked eight field goals in eight attempts. In addition, when the season ended, Andersen had attempted nine field goals over 50 yards and made a remarkable eight of them.
My second most indelible Morten memory was a comment made by my mother-in-law’s 70-something sister. A great Saints fan, she called me the night we terminated Andersen to ask why we had cut him. All her friends knew of her association with a Saints executive, and they were driving her crazy with their displeasure. I don’t know if she bought my explanation, but she was quick to inform me that she had done her best to defend me. Sort of. “I finally just had to tell them you weren’t blood,” she said, “You just married into the family!”
Congratulations, Morten, even if you didn’t ask me to present you.
I was going to write about something else today until I got an early e-mail from a good friend and sporting fan who happens to be a doctor. He was asking my opinion of a Wall Street Journal column this morning by Jason Day, whose jokey drollery normally has me in stitches. But today, Gay was serious as a coffin talking about the future of football.
In column headlined “Could Football Ever End?” Gay cited a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that revealed alarming confirmation of fears linking football with long-term brain damage. I’m not sure how many WSJ subscribers in the Gulf South are football fans, but it couldn’t be many. Otherwise, a suggestion that our region could actually face a future without its most reverent pastime is like hearing that Amazon has launched a hostile takeover of the Catholic Church. The earth would shake, the fish would stop biting and ducks would fly north for the winter.
But Gay’s column and my friend’s concern were valid. As Gay wrote: “Consider the conversation of the past week. A disturbing medical study was released showing brain damage in the brains of 110 of 111 deceased NFL players. Afterwards a PhD candidate offensive lineman abruptly retired at 26. In Pittsburgh, a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback wondered out loud if the 2017 season should be his last. As NFL teams open training camps, players were confronted with an ominous query: How worried are you about continuing to play this game?”
Anybody who has ever played football from high school on up knows the violent nature of the game. I remember years ago missing two games my sophomore year with a sprained right ankle, three more my junior year with a separated and sprained shoulder and three more my senior year with a sprained left ankle. But busted ankles and such do not threaten an individual’s ability to function and enjoy retirement. The concern raised by the study is the growing agreement that football carries long-term risk from head injuries.
The study found signs of the progressive neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 87% of 202 brains donated from deceased high school, college, semi-pro and professional football players. “This (JAMA study) shows there’s nothing to mess with,” Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger said last week. “If you want to mess with your brain, you can’t put a new one in. You can’t have a brain transplant. If you want to mess with your brain, go ahead. I’m not going to. I love my family and kids.”
Shortly after the study was released, Ravens OL John Urschel announced he was retiring from the game at 26 to pursue a doctorate in mathematics at MIT. Last year, Buffalo LB A.J. Tarpley quit after a pair of concussions, saying “I am walking away from the game I love to preserve my future health.” Rookie LB Chris Borland, who started six games for the 49ers in 2015, quit after a concussion, telling ESPN: “If there was no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing.”
Does the latest news herald a mass exodus from the NFL, the curbing of high school or college programs or even the closing of youth football leagues around the country? I don't think we are nearing the end of football, but I do think football will be very different in years to come. The most optimistic point made in the story was by Jets LB Jordan Jenkins who cautioned that most of the NFL evidence for CTE comes from the brains of men who played before the rules were tweaked. Eliminating head-on collisions is huge and taking the helmet out of tackling takes away arguably the No. 1 weapon that causes head injuries. But fears will persist and a hint of what that may mean can be found in the players who walked away. That might mean a radical shift to where the great majority of players who remain are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds whose only chance to escape their environment and excel is football.
Personally, I think continuing research – much of it funded by the NFL - will prompt a further evolution of the rules and protective equipment. Football won’t be the game Dick Butkus played, but it will be one where the future Butkuses will be able to recognize their grandkids.
When O.J. Simpson was granted parole last week after nine years in prison, public reaction ranged from angry to, well, angrier. I did not hear anyone express relief that the once-beloved NFL star, actor and broadcaster had paid his debt to society and would soon be free. The reluctance comes from the widespread belief that O.J.’s imprisonment for allegedly stealing memorabilia (that he claims was his to retrieve) was the only way prosecutors could make him pay for killing his ex-wife Nicole. The majority believes O.J. got away with murder.
The public response was boiled down well in a column by Rick Bozich who writes for WDRB-TV in Louisville: “O.J. Simpson served his time in a Nevada prison and earned parole Thursday. That's all I have to say about Simpson. He exceeded his 15 minutes of fame (and infamy) long, long ago. The time and emotion I invest in that story are better reserved for the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, who've been without their mother, sister, daughter, son and brother for more than two decades … Maybe one day authorities will catch the killer.”
Two years after the infamous Bronco chase and Simpson’s 1995 trial for murder, I went to work for the Buffalo Bills where Simpson enjoyed his glory days. I figured the long-timers up there would know him better than anyone. So I asked one of my co-workers who had been there during Simpson’s career: “Do you think he was guilty?” Without hesitation, he responded: “Guilty as hell! He was the greatest con man who ever put on the uniform.” The only time I can remember being around O.J. during my 20-year NFL career, was one day when I met him in the Saints’ Superdome office. I recall him flashing that smile and being very gracious. For anyone who knew and respected his playing background, his personality came through as a bonus. Con men could do that to you.
But there is one untold story about an experience O.J. had in New Orleans after his playing career ended where he was actually the victim. Simpson was part of the Monday Night Football broadcast team when the Jets came to play the Saints on November 21,1983. Roone Arledge, ABC’s boss of sports broadcasting, created brilliant chemistry with his Big Three of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. But in 1979, Arledge wanted boost ratings by shoe-horning Fran Tarkenton into an unwieldy four-man booth. Tark hung in for four years until he was replaced by Simpson, who by that time had become a budding actor and beloved personality.
Arledge’s team typically came into the host city on Friday and then met with the two teams’ coaches and players over the weekend. Monday morning was usually reserved for golf. Arledge contacted a local club and asked if his broadcast team could play on Monday morning. Although the club was ordinarily closed on Monday, the MNF personalities were prestigious guests and the manager readily agreed. That is, until one club member asked the manager if O.J. Simpson would be one of the golfers? The manager had not thought to ask the question, so he called Arledge and asked. When the response was a resounding “yes,” the manager regretfully informed the boss of ABC Sports that he had overlooked a prior commitment at the club and would be forced to rescind his invitation.
Nearly 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in public schools, it obviously still existed in some private clubs throughout the South, including New Orleans. Attitudes did not begin to change until 1990 when a highly publicized case led to the integration of Shoal Creek country club in Alabama and prompted gradual changes elsewhere. Accordingly, the local club has long since softened its policies and has African-Americans among its members.
But I’ll bet if O.J. Simpson called today and asked for a tee time, he would still be denied, and it would not be because of his skin color.
At first blush, the Pelicans’ signing of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo should make a Kentucky fan in New Orleans ecstatic. After all, now the local NBA franchise has a genuine Wildcat flavor, with stars Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins joined by free agent Darius Miller and now Rondo. After Rondo’s signing, one Wildcat fan sent out a tweet declaring a fantasy NBA divisional setup with New Orleans as UK South, Phoenix as UK Southwest and Sacramento as UK West (the Suns and Kings also have four former Wildcats on the roster). I even suggested a Big Blue Nation South in my tongue-in-cheek prediction for 2017 that John Calipari would become the Pelicans’ coach and assemble an all-UK alumni team that would be renamed the Pelicats.
All great fun, but when you look at the reality of the Rondo move, I’m holding my applause for results. Rondo’s skill is unquestioned. He's a basketball genius who understands the game as well as anyone in the league. He can find passing angles others can't and see defenses shifting before even they know which way they'll be moving. Rondo simply knows their tendencies better than they do. But Rondo also has a mercurial temper. He's sometimes too smart for his own good, getting angry when players don't grasp the game in the same manner he does.
What’s curious to me is that the Saints have done a good job at bringing in solid citizens who are good locker room guys, good teammates who are unselfish and put the team first. With the same management oversight, the Pelicans do not seem to be following the same plan.
The enigma of "Who is Rajon Rondo?" is nothing new. He spent two years at Kentucky under Tubby Smith, but even then he and his head coach butted heads. At one point Smith even suspended Rondo for six games. Following his sophomore year in 2007, Rondo was drafted in the first round by Boston and became distributor for a Celtics team that featured Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With three future Hall of Famers around him, Rondo seemed to go with the flow and won the 2008-09 NBA title. But after his relationship with Coach Doc Rivers soured, Boston very publicly put Rondo on the trading block. Rivers's decision to leave after the 2012-13 season to coach the Clippers was rooted in his relationship with Rondo.
Rondo's spats have led to him living out of a suitcase, playing for four teams in the past four years. He was shipped to Dallas during the 2014-15 season, but he and Coach Rick Carlisle engaged in a shouting match that resulted in a one-game suspension. Next stop was Sacramento where he and fellow Wildcat Cousins immediately bonded, although Big Cuz’ battle with authority led to Rondo’s rant that the Kings organization was “dysfunctional.”
When the Bulls decided to move on from Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose before the 2016-17 season, GM Gar Forman and President of Basketball Operations John Paxson handed two-year contracts to guards Dwyane Wade and Rondo. Wade had a borderline All-Star season for his hometown team, but things weren’t as easy for Rondo. The 30-year-old guard was benched in the second half of a loss to the Pacers and Coach Fred Hoiberg said he would not start him going forward. Rondo met with Bulls management after the game and said he wanted out. And here we are.
I still think the Pelicans' acquisition of Cousins was a great move, although Boogie’s problems at Sacramento were well documented. And that could be the silver lining in the Pelicans bringing Rondo aboard. In Sac, Rondo called Cousins "the best big in the league" and said the 25-year-old center has "become like a little brother to me." Rondo said Cousins has room to improve, and said: "He's one of the guys that's very selfless. He has to find other ways to get it done. He's going to continue to grow and learn.”
Rondo said at the time he would "love to continue to play with" Cousins. Now he’s got the chance.