The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
We’re halfway through the Winter Olympics, and I’m throwing in the frozen towel. The Winter Games weren’t meant for a guy like me. It probably hasn’t helped that the USA athletes have not fared as well as hoped, but whether my disinterest is because I am a front-runner, a patriotic elitist or just somebody who likes sports I can understand, the past week might as well have been titled the Quadrennial International Spandex Championships.
It’s not from a lack of trying. I have watched, or tried to watch, events nearly every evening, and I am convinced that most of the ten medals the USA has won so far all were in sports televised between 3 and 4:30 a.m. I tried to watch one of America’s gold-medal figure skating favorites, Nathan Chen, twice and twice ice chips flew off the seat of his pants. I missed Mikaela Shiffrin’s downhill gold, but I did see her barf-hampered fourth-place finish in the slalom.
Apologies to my cousins Ken and Becca Purnell, whose son and daughter are accomplished skaters, but why does TV have to show figure skating every night? Yes, I understand the beauty and athleticism of the skaters, but I need some education before I can experience the thrill of a properly executed catch-foot camel spin, or wax poetic while watching a one-foot double Salchow or a triple twist lift or inside axel or a double toe loop. And when I saw a European skater fall then finish higher than an American who remained upright, I stared blankly at the screen and went “Huh? I don’t like to watch sports where I feel like a dumbass!
Honestly, the most entertaining performance I’ve seen in the rink was the sumo figure skater in the Geico commercial! Maybe it’s because my idea of competition is when an individual or team show their skills in the vicinity of a ball. I understand when one team tries to put a football over the goal line while the other team tries to intercept it. I get it when a pitcher throws a baseball that a batter tries to knock out of the park. It makes sense when two basketball teams fight to put one ball in their basket. I don’t get the same sense of competition when one team member slides a stone across the ice and the other sweeps a path toward other stones. Curling reminds me of shuffleboard. And luge rekindled nightmares of the slippy-slide that propelled my kids across the yard and into the neighbor’s alligator pool.
I admit that downhill skiing is exciting, but I prefer the summer games when sprinters race against each other on the same track. Maybe downhill skiing needs to change its format to where all the skiers come out of the chute at the same time and whip their ski poles at one another all the way down the hill. First one across the goal standing wins!
Joe Queenan of the Wall Street Journal is a kindred spirit, because his column Saturday offered other suggestions on how the Winter Olympics could appeal more to guys like us. One suggestion was the Biathlon Backstroke where instead of shooting while cross-country skiing, the athlete shoots while swimming on their back, preferably in a large shark tank. Slalom Volleyball would combine a popular summer sport with a downhill race as two teams try to keep the ball in the air while zig-zagging downhill. My personal favorite is Nordic Swimming which is a 1,500-meter freestyle in a glacial mountain lake. Queenan suggests that even hockey would be more exciting if the players had to dodge a polar bear on the ice.
Those suggestions are not unlike my long-time proposal for full-contact golf, but it’s not just me who is losing interest. Viewership numbers are down 10% from the most recent winter games, 2014 at Sochi, which is intoned by Olympics announcers with the implied understanding that viewers know where the hell Sochi is. Defenders will argue that NFL ratings are also down about the same percentage, but give us 17 weeks of Winter Games and see how low the numbers go. On second thought, let’s not extend the Winter Games. Two weeks is more than enough!
I’m here to announce that after much consideration, I am officially launching a campaign to get rid of the “one and done” rule in college basketball. I’m not leaving college basketball fans with a smoldering implosion, I am offering a solution that makes so much sense the NBA and players association, who made the ruling in the first place, will never go for it. But first, here’s the background for this declaration:
Kentucky Coach John Calipari was the first college head coach to make his program a turnstile to the NBA, and who could argue? In Cal’s eight years in Big Blue Nation, his Wildcats have been to four Final Fours, barely missed two others and won the NCAA title in 2012. Then college basketball’s altar boy, Mike Krzyzewski,saw the hardware in Lexington and got in on the action. His recruiting classes at Duke started to out-Cal Calipari, and he even won his own title with freshman in 2015. The term "one and done" came to mean the NCAA hoops powers needed to lease one-year players, even though the players might only be on campus about nine months.
But lately, it seems that too much of a good thing is not so good. Kentucky is finding out this season that you can’t win with a lineup consisting primarily of freshmen. The Wildcats, featuring the No. 2 ranked freshman class of 2017, have uncharacteristically lost half of their last ten games and three in a row. But even when you have a senior running the show, as Duke has with point guard Grayson Allen, the results are not much better if the bulk of the cast is barely old enough to vote. Last week, Duke, with its No. 1 ranked freshman class, lost for the third time in four games and dropped a full four games behind top-ranked Virginia in the ACC.
"We've got to figure out something," said star freshman Marvin Bagley III, the top-ranked recruit in Duke's class. Calipari has repeatedly called his six freshmen and two sophomores the youngest team ini college basketball history as a reason for their inconsistency. But if you listen to Cal lately, he seems to realize something is wrong. "It seems like every young team in the country is struggling," Cal said last week. "The veteran teams are the ones that are doing well. We're all trying to do the same thing ... the kids are trying but it's not easy." Sure enough, a glance at the Associated Press rankings shows the top six or eight teams are dominated by the college equivalent of Social Security.
To add ammunition to the discussion, I saw an online poll Sunday titled: “Is Markelle Fultz a bust?” You may recall that after playing one season at the University of Washington, Fultz declared for the 2017 NBA draft and became the No. 1 selection, by the Philadelphia 76ers. But after four games on the active roster, Fultz injured a shoulder and hasn’t played a minute since. Now, as he recovers, the vultures are circling, claiming he wasn’t a very good shooter and the Sixers have tried to change his shot and maybe he wasn’t really ready for the big time, yadda, yadda, yadda.
If it’s not clear to you by now, it is to me that the NBA and its players association need to tear up the rule and retrench. And I have just the solution. First, allow any high school player to be eligible for the NBA Draft, but with conditions to prevent chaos. Under the plan, any high school player may declare for the draft and may be invited to participate in the NBA pre-draft tryouts. He would be prohibited from signing with an agent, to protect his college eligibility in case he is not drafted. If a player who applied is not invited to the tryouts, his NBA application is dismissed and he is eligible to be signed by a college.
On draft day, an NBA team could draft a high school player but it must be in the first round. The current practice of guaranteeing all first-round contracts would continue, and under the plan, a guaranteed contract of not less than three years would be extended to any high school player selected. This puts the onus on the NBA teams to make a commitment to the young players, although they may be sent to the G-League for development. If a team decides in the first three years the player is not what they thought, the player could be traded or cut, but the player still gets paid.
Any high school player who is invited to the pre-draft tryouts but is not drafted can sign with a college but would not be eligible for the NBA draft until three seasons have passed since his high school graduation, like the current MLB draft. In return, the college would guarantee the recruit a scholarship until he graduates, however long that might take. This plan does not prevent the young player from exercising overseas options if he is not drafted or signs with a college, which is the case now. But, unlike the current system, a player going overseas out of high school would not be NBA-eligible for three years. The three year wait is not unlike the NFL and MLB systems, so why wouldn’t the NBA embrace the same plan?
Hopefully, good sense will prevail and more high school stars will realize that, while the NBA does not deem them ready to play against men right away, three years of college ball would give them a better opportunity to prepare. This plan would open the draft to the almost-certain stars and then improve the draft pool with more experienced players down the line. The plan also would improve college basketball with the continuity of more players staying in school longer. Most importantly, it would protect the college signee by giving him three years to prepare for his NBA aspirations and guaranteeing him an education. And isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?
It’s Feb. 3, 2019, and the New Orleans Saints are revelling in their 31-14 Super Bowl LIII victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Saints QB Drew Brees was voted the game’s MVP, throwing three touchdown passes, two to All-Pro Michael Thomas and one to TE Jimmy Graham, whom the Saints signed in March as a free agent. The defense held the Jags’ high-powered offense to its lowest scoring output of the season as Cameron Jordan and Ziggy Ansah, the former Lion signed as a free agent, sacked QB Blake Bortles six times. CB Malcolm Butler, another free agent pickup whom the Patriots benched in Super Bowl LII, intercepted Bortles twice.
Hey, it could happen! I wrote a few weeks ago that I believed the Saints had lost too many key players to injuries to get to Super Bowl LII, but that they were primed to take it all next year. They almost proved me wrong about this year, but it was clearly the Eagles’ time. Losing your quarterback prompted the so-called experts to flee the bandwagon and consider Philadelphia underdogs all the way through the playoffs. But QB Nick Foles proved how important the backup quarterback position can be.
Confidence in the Saints’ chances next year isn’t just a figment of one guy’s imagination. On Monday, ESPN.com backed into the same prediction. Although rating the Eagles and Vikings higher, ESPN reasoned that the recently crowned world champions could lose some key players to free agency, and it’s going to be interesting when QB Carson Wentz returns to full health. And all three Vikings quarterbacks could become free agents, which will create an interesting off-season in the far north.
Here’s what ESPN said about our local heroes: “The Saints went 11-5 this past season and had a team that featured the second-most snaps from rookies. Those rookies - which included Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore – could continue to improve and make an impact in 2018. And assuming Drew Brees does return (he’s a pending free-agent) the Saints could be the team to beat in the NFC.”
I agree, for those reasons and others I listed a few weeks ago. Kamara and Lattimore were voted the best offensive and defensive rookies of the year, and joining them were other rookies or second-year men at key positions. The roster is young, averaging only 26.1 years of age, and next year, they will still be six months younger than the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl champs, with another year of experience.
Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen put together a formidable group from the ashes of what was probably the worst defense in the league a year ago. Linebackers A.J. Klein and rookie Alex Anzalone missed much of the season with injuries but will be back. In addition to Lattimore, the secondary started rookie Marcus Williams, while second-year man Ken Crawley started most of the season and P.J. Williams started five. All should be better and more comfortable next year.
In free agency, a priority should be a rush end to complement Cameron Jordan who enjoyed his best season. Players who could step right in include Lions pass-rusher supreme, Ziggy Ansah, or the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence who had 14.5 sacks. Another free agent who could bolster the defense is CB Malcolm Butler, who almost came to New Orleans a year ago and must be itching to avenge his benching in the Super Bowl. On offense, Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry, the former LSU Tiger, might want to come home and hook up with Brees, and former Saint TE Jimmy Graham also is a free agent who enjoyed his best years with Brees. In the draft, I would expect personnel guru Jeff Ireland to continue his remarkable job at finding players who can step right in and contribute.
So while the NFL is celebrating the Eagles’ victory, the Saints have to be looking ahead to winning their second Super Bowl next year. And they would even get a bonus doing it. The game will be played at Atlanta's Mercedes Benz Stadium, home of their biggest rival. How sweet that would be!
I don’t know if you noticed, but age was a hot topic the past week. At least, it was in my household as I reached one of those dreaded milestone birthdays. You know the ones, that end in a ZERO! Yeah, you guessed it. I’m 40. Again. Or at least I was celebrating another anniversary of my 40th birthday, which seems like a lifetime ago.
But age just wasn’t about me this week. Look around you, especially in the sporting world. Next Sunday, Tom Brady, who is at least my age, will seek to become the oldest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Interestingly, the last two champions were led by quarterbacks in their dotage: Brady last year at 39 years six months, and Peyton Manning the year before at 39 years 10 months. And did you see Drew Brees’ performance Sunday in the Pro Bowl? First drive, 7 for 9 completions and a touchdown to the Vikings’ Adam Thielen. The Saints’ quarterback, who turned 39 on January 15, has a legitimate shot to pass the aforementioned in the next couple of years if the Saints follow the Who Dat Nation script.
Age also was an issue in other sports. Roger Federer won his 20th Grand Slam tennis title Sunday at the Australian Open at the princely age of 36. At the other end of the age scale, we Kentucky basketball fans have been lamenting the fact that our beloved Wildcats are unranked for the first time seemingly since Adolph Rupp was a corporal, and the reason is all those young pups on the floor. But on Saturday, our Kiddie Cats went to West Virginia and overcame a 17-point deficit to topple the No.7 Mountaineers. Have they grown up in time for a tournament run? Who knows? Age is a fickle thing.
But we started this conversation talking about yours truly. While I did not play college basketball when I was 18 nor win a Super Bowl championship at 40, I did run a handful of marathons in my 30s and ever since have tried to keep myself in reasonably good physical condition. I stretch daily, using the exercises that you can see on the adjoining tab “Stay Fit.” And my morning routine still includes a three-mile constitutional that includes a one-mile walk sandwiched between two one-mile runs. That program mimics a training program commonly used by distance runners in which they run at race pace for a period, then slow to a jog for a period before picking up the race-pace again. The program, for whatever reason, is called a “fartlek,” which gives me license to call my run-walk-run routine my “Old Fart-lek.”
Professional experts who say age is just a “state of mind” obviously are a few holidays from 40. Age is not a state of mind as much as an annoyance to the mind. If you are like me, you can remember events in the past while struggling to remember a name or a fact that would quickly spill out of your mouth in another time. An even more sinister curse of old age is gravity. You might remember from Mr. Carr’s science class that gravity is something Isaac Newton discovered when an apple fell on his head and it became the scientific formula of F=G ([m1*m2]/D^2). (If you didn’t remember that either, you can look it up, as I did!)
Gravity to my generation means our body parts, skin, muscle and additional avoirdupois have fallen like Newton’s apple! Even those of us who weigh about the same as we did 40 years ago find the shape of the package drastically different. How did that tire get so inflated? If you fear giggles and pointing and nicknames like “muffin-top,” “pear-butt” or the “inverted mushroom,” offer the giver a doughnut and be comforted in the knowledge that someday they’ll look worse!
Yes, I watched the NFL conference championship games Sunday, and it’s a shame the Saints missed out. Not only because Drew Brees & Co. surely would have been more competitive than the Vikings, but I believe that after a depressing season filled with protests and concussion protocols and other issues that reflected a wobbly league office, the NFL needed the spark that the Saints and their fans would have provided.
Instead, we are stuck with the Patriots and Eagles. Welcome to the annual New England Patriots Invitational, where this year the storm troopers from the Death Star will spot the delegation from the Cheesesteak Capital of the World a 28-3 lead before their customary fourth-quarter wakeup call! Brought to you by the folks at Booooorinnnng TV! At least the Eagles spared us repeated showings of “the Minnesota Miracle” for the next two weeks!
Why do I think the Saints would have been a much-needed shot in the NFL's arm? Let me count the ways. No other team in the NFL mirrors the personality, attitude and joie de vivre that binds a professional team with its fans. Emotion is far more rampant than logic in the Big Easy, which is one reason expressions of devotion to our team spontaneously burst forth like daffodils in springtime. Look at who we are talking about. Many Saints fans look like they just stumbled off a Mardi Gras float; they should come into the Superdome on floats since they dress the part. You can see religious leaders - the Pope and Moses are regulars - movie stars like Batman and Darth Vader, Whistlehead in a Rickey Jackson jersey, clowns both scary and whimsical, Dickensian characters, the Tin Man, multiple glittering Elvii and season-appropriate characters such as Santa Claus, black and gold turkeys, skeletons and the Great Pumpkin.
New Orleans is fertile ground for such characters to germinate. After the Saints’ first taste of success, Who Dat emotion took on many forms. A restaurant commercial became a raucous mantra of "Ka-Ching!" every time the Saints did something good on the field. Other songs or slogans were commandeered and Saints’ success was glorified with “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or a friendly warning that “Here Come the Saints,” or even a non-sensical invitation from an obscure singing duo called the Ying Yang twins for fans to “staaannnnd up and get Crunk.” (All catchy unless you’re riding in a Mardi Gras float and hear “Crunk” played in your ear 762 times over an eight-hour ride.)
Our ready force of musicians are willing to memorialize Saints’ success with their own twist, as occurred when a head coach’s impromptu shuffle in a winning locker room went viral. Sean Payton’s celebratory dance following the 31-26 win over Carolina birthed a hip-twisting song by trumpeter Shamarr Allen, whose creative lyrical rap goes something like “Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Sean Payton…” Within a day or two, local kindergartners had become You Tube stars with their version of the “Sean Payton” dance, and Allen rose from obscurity to folk hero. He even penned a sequel after the Saints loss that went “Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Expletive, Expletive, Expletive!” Only in New Orleans!
Maybe New Orleans folks are required to celebrate their successes with such high emotion because there are so few bright, shining days in the real life of our city. Take a look at the Metro section of the local wipe and on many days every story on a page is crime-related. Rape, murder, carjacking, robbery, assaults upon unexpected tourists in the French Quarter and more. Incompetence is rampant, reflected by the Sewer & Water Board’s lame excuses why nearly every heavy rain causes major street flooding. The drug trade has created war between street gangs along with the collateral damage of innocent bystanders – often children - being shot and killed. And the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina are still around us in the person of vacant lots where houses once stood or acres of concrete that once housed shopping centers or businesses.
We need our islands of joy where logic is shelved for another opportunity to unleash our emotions. Membership in Who Dat Nation is cheap. The only price is your reaction to the latest Saints game. After a win, you join your neighbors and dance the night away to tunes like “Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Sean Payton, Sean Payton.” After a loss, you sing “Expletive, Expletive, Expletive” while wondering how many more chances Drew Brees will have to win a Super Bowl.
Yes, the NFL could have used the Saints’ personality and its fans’ exuberance to lift this Super Bowl out of the 2017 regular season muck. But that's their problem. Around here, you know things will be okay soon. Mardi Gras is only three weeks away, and Saints players are already lining up to ride in their favorite parades.