Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stop the Bleeding

College wrestling is in trouble, and a local phenom is feeling the effects.

Tejovan Edwards, who won a Group AAA state title at 140 pounds for Cox (Virginia Beach, Va.) High School, signed a letter of intent with Arizona State, eager to wrestle on the Division I level and compete for coach -- and former Cox standout -- Brian Stith.

Now Arizona State has dumped its wrestling program.

This is the sixth Division I wrestling program to fold within the last three years, joining Slippery Rock, Fresno State, Eastern Illinois, James Madison and Oregon. Arizona State is also cutting men's tennis and men's swimming. University officials say the move will save $1.1 million in the athletic budget, and also admitted a Title IX component.

Arizona State officials say roughly $8 million are needed to save the program and supporters have already raised $2 million, but this serves as a signal of a disturbing trend in college athletics. When Old Dominion announced a few years back it was adding a football team, rumors swirled whether the wrestling team would survive the Title IX ramifications.

The wrestling team survived the addition, as ODU decided to add three women's programs in lieu of cutting a men's team, but the fact that we even had the discussion is sad state of affairs.

Granted, college wrestling isn't one of the biggie sports -- it's not a money-maker, and aside from the national finals on ESPN, the sport rarely receives mainstream national publicity. Athletes like Edwards are often the victims in scenarios like this -- Arizona State says it will still honor his scholarship and his enrollment, but if Edwards wants to wrestle collegiately, he'll have to go somewhere else.

The spirit of Title IX is sound -- I'm all for gender equality. But athletic programs today use Title IX as an excuse to cut men's programs that don't excel financially. I'm all for female athletes getting their shot, but not at the expense of athletes like Edwards.

I hope Edwards can find another program to wrestle for, and I hope against all hope that the tide of Div. I wrestling teams getting the axe stops.

And soon.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ticking Off the Fans

You know what fans really hate?

Billionaires bickering with millionaires over how much money each side gets. Which is exactly what the NFL and the players' association are probably about to do. News broke Tuesday that NFL owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement, meaning a potential uncapped year in 2010 and a possible lockout in 2011.

NFL brass assured everyone the game will continue "without threat of interruption for at least the next three seasons." But the big bone of contention -- at least for owners -- is the combined $4.5 billion a year they have to give players. Under the current deal, players receive 60 percent of league revenues, and owners apparently think that's too much.

There are other reasons for the opt-out: higher labor costs, problems with the rookie pool and the NFL's inability to recoup bonuses of players who breach their contracts (i.e., Michael Vick). But the big one appears to be the 60-percent piece of the pie the players receive.

In a stroke of irony, NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler told the Wall Street Journal prior to the announcement that should the owners opt out, the union would seek an increased share of the revenues. Kessler supported that stance by saying the union received an increase every other time a new CBA had been agreed upon.

Like I said, billionaires bickering with millionaries.

Do I think the players deserve 60 percent of NFL revenues? Of course -- the league and its owners make a humungous profit off the players (from ticket sales to merchandise numbers and advertising dollars), so it's only fair for the players to receive at least half of that. It's a similar argument to the one those in favor of paying student-athletes make, but in the NFL it holds more water, particularly since there's no such thing in the NFL as a guaranteed contract.

And while Kessler and Gene Upshaw might be justified in asking for a larger share for the players, perception will paint a negative picture. The owners are flexing their greedy muscles in trying to squeeze millions out of the players, yet the players -- many of whom already rake in millions in contracts and endorsements -- are trying to fill their own already-stuffed pockets.

Regrdless of who might be right in this (and I side with the union), no one's going to look right in public opinion. When owners and players start fighting over dollar amounts the general fan couldn't even dream of, that's a public relations nightmare.

The NFL is high and mighty, and will likely survive this -- possibly without a stoppage in 2011. But the longer this drags, the worse everyone looks and the more Roger Goodell might be looking up Gary Bettman's phone number.

When billionaires and millionaries fight over money, everyone loses.

The Art of Being Random

Feel Good

No one would ever accuse me of being a Red Sox fan, but I couldn’t help but root for Jon Lester Monday night as he tossed a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. Nine innings, 130 pitches, nine strikeouts, two walks, no hits and one hell of a good story.

This isn’t like Justin Verlander’s no-hitter last season, where I pumped my chest over a product of my alma mater’s baseball team reaching the pitching pinnacle. There was a collegiate pride in that instance, but with Lester there’s awe and inspiration. Because this time last year, Lester was so weak from chemotherapy and radiation treatment that he couldn’t even pick up a baseball.

But Lester worked his way back, returned to the Red Sox and won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series. And now the fourth no-hitter in the last two seasons.

Diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, Lester underwent treatment and returned to the Red Sox organization for spring training in 2007. I saw him pitch a game for AAA Pawtucket against the Norfolk Tides last summer, and I have to admit it was a great feeling to watch a guy battle through what was once a death sentence to continue his career.

As much as I respect Tennessee’s Chris Lofton for playing last season after recovering from testicular cancer, I respect Lester the same way for what he has accomplished. To beat cancer – in any form – and return to the mound and perform as well as he did … remarkable doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Boston refused to deal Lester in the offseason, when Minnesota wanted him in a proposed deal for Johan Santana. Lester, who is 3-2 this season with a 3.41 ERA, has proven the Red Sox’ faith in him right, and anyone with a heart can’t help but get goosebumps when thinking of what he accomplished.

We’re so negative and cynical in today’s sports climate – between steroids and Spygate and betting scandals – that when a feel-good story comes along, we have to embrace it and enjoy it for as long as we can.

Because these stories are too few and far between anymore.

Not Convinced

David Stern once called Tim Donaghy a “rogue individual,” claiming the embattled NBA referee was the only one betting on basketball games. Now that the story has resurfaced with Donaghy’s admission that he bet on more than 100 games he worked as an official, I can’t help but feel as if Stern is wrong in his assessment.

It could just be my cynicism in today’s landscape, but I have a hard time believing Donaghy was the only referee betting on NBA games.

That’s like saying the 86 baseball players named in the Mitchell Report were the only ones using performance-enhancing drugs. Most level-headed people know that’s not the case.

I believe steroid use was far more rampant than those 86 players, just as I believe the New England Patriots aren’t the only NFL team to tape opposing team’s offensive and defensive signals. I have no evidence to back up either claim, but logically, I have a feeling these problems are much deeper than those who have been caught.

I feel the same way about the NBA ref betting scandal. I applaud Stern for jumping in front of the controversy in such a way that the sports media didn’t talk about it ad nauseum the way we’ve discussed Spygate, but the reality stands: if Donaghy did it, how can you possibly convince me no one else did?

Sid the Kid

Gary Bettman has to be ecstatic. For Sidney Crosby is in the Stanley Cup finals.

Will that translate into better ratings, when the Pittsburgh Penguins take on Detroit in Game 1 on Saturday? Hard to say; we thought LeBron James would help the NBA Finals’ ratings last year, and they didn’t – and the NBA is in much better shape than the NHL.

But Crosby’s presence has to help, right? Right?

If I’m the NHL, I certainly hope so. This league needs as much to go right as possible, given how it’s still struggling from the lockout of two seasons ago. The TV package has resulted in low ratings and an eventual fade from the public consciousness, and the potential star power of Crosby is just what the NHL needs to get itself back on the national sports map.

I don’t know if Sid the Kid is the second coming of The Great One, but for Bettman’s sake, I hope he can at least make hockey relevant again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Journalism 101

Verify Your Sources

So the Boston Herald issued an apology to the New England Patriots in Wednesday's edition after we learned the Patriots did not tape the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough prior to the Super Bowl in 2002.

The paper first reported the alleged existence of the tape on Feb. 2, a day before the Patriots lost 17-14 to the New Yourk Giants in the Super Bowl. Apparently, whoever wrote the story only bothered to use one source -- a source the Herald claimed "it believed to be credible."

"We should not have published the allegation in the absence of firmer verification," the paper read. "The Boston Herald regrets the damage done to the team by publication of the allegation, and sincerely apologizes to its readers and to the New England Patriots' owners, players, employees and fans for our error."

Alas, the Herald's gaff seems indicative of today's journalism, which ignores the standard of fact verification in favor of getting the big story to the public as soon as possible, and certainly before anyone else can break it. Ignore the fact that source verifying, once a cornerstone of the journalism profession, means accurate reporting -- we have to beat the other guys to this!

Granted, the paper deserves credit for apologizing -- once on the front page, again on the back page and a three-paragraph mea culpa inside the back page -- but the reporter should've done his job right the first time. If the reporter does his job correctly, and verifies what his source told him, we don't have this scenario.

Enough, already!

Just when you thought Matt Wlash put Spygate to bed for good, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has other ideas.

Specter, who criticized Commissioner Roger Goodell's handling of the initial investigation and deemed the Patriots' win over the Phildelphia Eagles in the 2004 Super Bowl tainted, has asked for a more independent investigation of the Patriots' videotaping scandal. Apparently, he's about as satisfied with Goodell's investigation as George Mitchell was with how Major League Baseball handled the steroids situation.

Specter threatened to revoke the NFL's antitrust exemption, and said when Walsh met with Goodell, he did so with a lawyer representing the Patriots. While I agree that looks bad, I don't see the point in dragging this on any further.

The NFL caught Bill Belicheck taping the New York Jets at the beginning of last season. Belicheck was punished, and it seemed to be a dead issue before the Boston Herald dropped the walkthrough tape bombshell. Then Specter jumped in, and next thing we knew, the NFL was looking to meet with Walsh about what the Patriots did or didn't do.

What I want to know is -- what about the other 31 NFL teams? I don't doubt Belicheck taped signals for several years, but I do doubt he was the only one. I see this as less of a New England Patriots problem and more of a league-wide issue, and unless Specter sees fit to investigate the entire league, I don't see the point in this.

I think Congress has better things to worry about than whether NFL coaches are taping defensive signals, just like I think the steroids probes were a waste of time. But I guess if you're going to waste time and money, why not go all-out with it?

A feel-good story

Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays are in first place in the American League East.

I realize it's only May 14, and I realize the Rays are only a half-game up on the Boston Red Sox. But for a perrenial doormat to be 23-16 and on a six-game winning streak -- I'm not convinced this is a fluke.

The Rays are an amazing 15-7 at home so far this season, hitting .259 (eighth-best in the AL) and are only allowing four runs a game -- the fifth-best mark in all of MLB. Carlos Pena is giving the Rays power with eight home runs, while B.J. Upton leads the team in average (.287) and RBI (25).

And let's not forget such young talent as Evan Longoria and Akinori Iwamura.

James Shields held down the rotation in Scott Kazmir's absence, maintaining a 3.14 ERA. Now that Kazmir's back, an already-solid rotation is getting better. And let's not forget -- Andy Sonnanstine leads the team with five wins. Troy Pervical has solidified the back end of the pitching staff, saving nine games while only blowing two chances (one of those chances was Tuesday night against the Yankees, a game the Rays still won, 2-1 in 11 innings).

Oh, Tampa Bay also leads the AL in stolen bases with 39. Small ball can win you a lot of games.

I'm not saying Tampa Bay will win the division -- or even earn a Wild Card slot. But they will make things interesting between the Red Sox and Yankees, and they're headed in the right direction. As much as I wish the Orioles were the ones pulling this off, it's nice to see a team that has struggled for so long doing so well early.

One of those things that makes the marathon baseball season more fun to follow.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Apologizing for Nothing in Particular

Illegal Benefits

Anyone who thinks the story of hoops phenom O.J. Mayo allegedly taking $30,000 in illegal benefits while in high school and at USC is a sign of why the NBA's age limit rule doesn't work needs to re-examine the situation. While I agree David Stern's rule that a player must be 19 years old or have a year of college before entering the NBA Draft is flawed, this isn't why.

For proof, look no further than former USC football stud Reggie Bush, who even in the NFL has to deal with allegations he and his family took illegal benefits while he was helping the Trojans win back-to-back national titles and taking home the 2005 Heisman Trophy.

Bush wasn't a one-and-done player, and he still found himself in this mess. And what about the gifts Chris Webber took from Michigan boosters when he was a member of the Fab Five? He wasn't a one-and-done stud either.

And let's not forget former Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar, who was being paid for a job at a local car dealership he wasn't doing.

High-profile college athletes taking illegal benefits from boosters and sports agencies looking to eventually represent them is nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to college hoops stars looking toward the NBA after one year. I'm not even sure I blame the kids in this so much, because let's face it: if I'm 18, 19 years old, possibly from a less-than-well-off background, and someone offers me five figures ... how hard do you think it would be for me to say no?

But USC deserves its share of the blame, for the simple fact that the school had already been through this before with Bush. When Mayo recruited himself to hoops coach Tim Floyd, the school should've done its homework (it says it did, but I don't buy it) and seen the red flags. There is no way USC didn't know what was going on, and if they didn't, there's a compliance officer who should be looking for a new job.

Let's try placing the blame in this where it belongs, eh?

Well, he's not Isiah ...

Mike D'Antoni will be announced as the new coach of the New York Knicks Tuesday afternoon, and many wonder if he's a good fit for a team that is, to put it kindly, in disarray.

While anyone is an upgrade over Isiah Thomas at this point, will D'Antoni's up-tempo offense and optional defense work with this roster? A roster that still includes Stephon Marbury, at that?

To be fair, reports are D'Antoni's first move will be to cut Marbury. If that's true, it's a good first step in the former Phoenix coach's regime. But trading in Amare Stoudamire for Eddy Curry? I apologize if I fail to see the logic in that.

Oh, wait ... four years, $24 million. That's all the logic you need right there. And as much as the Chicago Bulls would've been a better fit, since the team has actual talent, it became clear after talking to D'Antoni the Bulls didn't want him.

Apparently, Chicago wants to play defense.

D'Antoni has a chance, especially if the Knicks land a top-two draft spot and can take either Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley. And the Eastern Conference being what it is, 37 wins might be good enough for the postseason (right, Atlanta?). But rebuilding the Knicks will be a long-term project, and I wonder what D'Antoni's priorities were in making this decision.