Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Let's not cheat ourselves

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

For more than a week now, sports reporters and journalists all over the country have weighed in with their opinions on the New England Patriots’ cheating scandal of taping New York Jets’ defensive coaches on the sidelines.

Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 by the NFL over the ordeal, and the team was fined $250,000 and will either have to forfeit a first round draft choice if they make the playoffs, or a combination of later round picks if they do not.

When the story was first reported, fans did not know the details of what took place, and the whole thing seemed shocking and completely overblown. But people still don’t know what really happened, and they may never know. The Patriots were filming opposing coaches during the game, which is really the only specific information that has been made available. Insults were hurled at the Patriots from all directions, much like any story that breaks on ESPN.

After the Patriots were punished, though, other views started to come out about cheating in sports. Reporters and sports analysts were saying things like: everybody cheats; if teams or athletes are not cheating, then they are not trying to win; cheating is part of the game; the Patriots are not the only team to do this, but they are the first to get caught. These opinions greatly differed from the immediate blame.

Now, trying to debate that cheating in sports does not occur is pointless since it frequently does. Types of cheating recently have included steroids, bribes or gambling issues with referees and officials, and the current dilemma of dishonestly using videotape. But these examples, which are arguably the most serious forms of cheating, can not really be compared to the types of cheating that occur on the field.

One of the biggest cases that was being dissected was the relationship of stealing signs on the base paths in baseball to the Patriots using video equipment to steal defensive signs. But there’s a huge problem with this comparison – the first occurs on the field, and the second occurs off of it. What the Patriots did, whether they are the only team to ever do it, was far different from players who are looking to gain an edge while actually playing in a game.

In baseball, aside from stealing signs, pitchers can doctor their pitches and change the grip of the baseball, and runners can cut bases or take off early on fly balls if umpires are not paying attention. In basketball, defenders have been flopping all over the court for years now, hoping to draw offensive fouls. Defenders, like Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs, for example, also look for every edge they can get to stop players from scoring. If they are not caught, then their tactics can be effective. Even in football, defenses can simulate snap counts, put substances on their hands to make catching the ball easier, or make their uniforms more slippery by putting certain substances on their jerseys. All other sports, too, have their own little intricacies inside the games that are not always noticed or caught.

Sure, players may be cheating most of the time, but at least they’re doing so on the field where officials, referees, and most importantly, players can handle problems for themselves. If athletes are cheating on the field, good chances still exist for their opponents to adjust and even the score. But if cheating occurs off the field, athletes and coaches don’t have a fair chance to compete, which takes away the fundamental idea of sports in the first place.

Look, even the description of what cheating specifically includes in sports is extremely hazy. Some things are looked over while others are completely frowned upon and are forbidden at all costs.

I have a perfect example from my days of high school baseball. While playing centerfield one game, a ball was hit deep to the right-center gap. Only one umpire happened to be at the game, so he could not see everything on the field. The ball kept going, and it barely went over the chain-link fence. However, the right fielder and I both put our hands up to give the impression that the ball had landed in front of the fence and rolled under it, which would mean a ground-rule double. We both knew it wasn’t a double, but the umpire bought it anyway because he lacked another set of eyes in the field. Were we cheaters?

It ended up not mattering because we lost the game. I mean, it’s not like we had videotape of our opponent’s signs or anything.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Underdogs on top

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

When it comes to sports, everything goes. Each sport has its own certain rules and guidelines, but no boundaries exist with what can happen both on and off the field. Many people love sports for that reason alone – they never know exactly what’s going to happen next. That trend has been especially true over the last few years.

Appalachian State’s stunning upset of Michigan two weeks ago is the most recent example of an impressive achievement for an underdog. A Football Championship Subdivision (former known as Division I-AA) team had never beaten a ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) team until the Mountaineers stormed into Ann Arbor and refused to lose. Appalachian State, though, is not alone in giving a heavily favored opponent a shocking defeat.

Underdogs have arguably achieved the most in Major League Baseball. With the addition of the wild card spot in 1995, more teams have had a shot to knock off division leaders and ride the momentum into the World Series. Last season the St. Louis Cardinals, only five games above .500, snuck into the playoffs, propelled themselves through the NL playoffs, and went on to beat the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Other wild card World Series champions include the Florida Marlins in both 1997 and 2003, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2002, and the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

Another shocking event occurred in 2006 when #11 seed George Mason went on an unbelievable run to reach the Final Four. Every so often college basketball has a surprising upset in the regular season or in the NCAA Tournament, but rarely has a feat as impressive as George Mason’s run been accomplished. This astonishing stretch, which included wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and Connecticut, was perhaps even a more spectacular achievement than Appalachian State’s upset win since it took four separate victories.

Last year the Golden State Warriors shocked the entire NBA by taking down the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors, only an eight seed, manhandled the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round. The Warriors pushed the tempo and made people believe that they were, in fact, the favorites. They ran with the momentum in the series, constantly feeding off of their raucous home crowd, but they still lost in the second round to the Utah Jazz. The upset in the previous round was impressive nonetheless.

Many people enjoy cheering for the underdog, but occasionally underdogs are turning into winners on the biggest stage. Fueled by momentum, the ability to unite, and the development of a chip on their shoulders, underdogs continue to give many sports fans reasons for watching certain games. When a few things go wrong and the favorites make mistakes and leave the door open, underdogs have been snatching opportunities and advantages away.

One of the best examples of the underdog role versus the favorite role can be seen in just one team – the New Orleans Saints in the NFL. Last year an increased fan base and a few new faces (Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, and Head Coach Sean Payton) helped the Saints surprise many teams in the league, and they reached the NFC Championship Game. Even though they lost to the Bears, many peopled believe that the Saints would be even better this year. But during their opening game on Monday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts, the Saints were viewed almost as equals, and they definitely didn’t play with the same fire and intensity they had shown last year.

Things change fast in the NFL. But even if the Saints look great next week, they’ll never be able to completely capture the same atmosphere they played under last season.

Plenty of other notable upsets in all sports surely exist and are not included here, but the point is this – sometimes underdogs have their opponents right where they want them. There will always be more games to play, but even so, underdogs pulling off stunning victories will never stop.

And really, who would want it to? (Besides Michigan fans…)