Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Insights from the 2008 NFL Draft (1st Round)

(Originally written by Walter Williams and I on 4/26/08 for The Bottom Line)

MK: Walt and I took the opportunity to watch the 1st Round of the NFL Draft this year, and we decided to share some of our thoughts, opinions, and observations. Here they are:

During ESPN’s corny introduction to get the draft started at 3pm, plenty of Jets fans could obviously be seen in the crowd, since the draft is held in New York. One fan even had on an old Keyshawn Johnson Jets jersey. I’m glad to know that guy has a sense of humor.

WW: Keyshawn also has a solid sense of humor. I mean, you have to not take yourself too seriously if you wear a suit that makes you look like a wannabe oompa loompa.

You know what, calling that intro lame doesn't quite do it justice. They were going for some futuristic look and it wound up looking like something you would see on the Sci-Fi Channel.

3:02 – MK: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell welcomes everyone and the draft has officially begun. The Miami Dolphins select Michigan LT Jake Long, which isn’t suspenseful at all considering the Dolphins already signed him to a contract days before the draft. After the choice, ESPN immediately goes to commercial – no surprises there.

WW: I initially wasn't sure how I felt about this pick, but after thinking about it I believe that it’s a good move because the Dolphins are in need of a lot more than just one player and starting with retooling the offensive line appears to be a good move.

3:11 – MK: Chris Long, son of Raiders’ great Howie Long, looks extremely nervous in an interview with ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. I hope he doesn’t act that goofy on the field.

WW: I would have been much more excited about his prospects in the NFL if after his Mom's phone went off, he jumped across the table and tackled her. That's a lot more intimidating than whining about keeping the phone on vibrate.

3:12 – MK: After the interview, the Rams take Long, a DE from Virginia. Nothing stunning about that.

3:14 – With Atlanta on the clock, the main ESPN NFL Draft panel, Mel Kiper Jr., Chris Mortensen, Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Chris Berman, discuss the whole Michael Vick situation. I’m not sure if the Vick situation has been covered enough. Steve Young thinks the Falcons should take a quarterback – shocking.

3:18 – The Falcons do take a quarterback – Matt Ryan from Boston College. Kiper says that the Falcons can now turn the page and stop worrying about Vick, but that doesn’t really mean Ryan is the best pick here. They skipped over Glenn Dorsey, which could have been a mistake.

WW: That might be more than just a big mistake. The Falcons are in for a long rebuilding process and getting a guy who threw 19 picks in the ACC last year might set the franchise back even more. On the plus side, it appeared that Ryan was working on perfecting his southern drawl.

3:26 – MK: Apparently Mortensen thinks Darren McFadden is a “big Reggie Bush.” At this point, is that really a good thing?

WW: If you can subtract the constant east-west running, keep Kim Kardashian, and add McFadden's own great speed and receiving ability, then yes.

3:27 – MK: The Oakland Raiders take McFadden, a RB from Arkansas. The Jets’ fans aren’t happy.

WW: I don't know why they are so upset. The Raiders saved the Jets and their fans the inevitable embarrassment of passing on McFadden for some guy you've never heard of.

3:32 – MK: Self-proclaimed “God’s Linebacker,” Ray Lewis, just made an appearance in an Under Armour commercial. I just thought that was worth noting.

WW: I also thought it was worth noting that someone probably needs to drug test that guy screaming in all of their commercials. It's hard to imagine anyone being that naturally pumped up about some compression shirts.

3:35 – MK: The Kansas City Chiefs select DT Glenn Dorsey out of LSU. Having Dorsey drop to number five surely makes Herm Edwards very happy.

WW: I can guarantee that this move really makes the guy who is going to succeed Herm Edwards after he gets fired ecstatic.

3:44 – MK: The Jets pick DE/LB Vernon Gholston out of Ohio State, and Jets’ fans are thrilled for once. Gholston will probably play outside linebacker in New York’s 3-4 scheme.

WW: And since he got drafted by the Jets he will probably be a colossal bust.

3:51 – MK: In the first trade of the draft, the Saints move up to seventh slot after dealing first and third round choices to New England. The Saints, as expected, take DT Sedrick Ellis out of USC. This pick certainly fills a giant need for the Saints.

WW: Yes it does. The Saints’ defensive line had so many holes it resembled Swiss cheese. If I were the Saints, I would just have him play with his helmet off. I wouldn't want to run at a guy who looked like that.

3:54 – MK: After the Saints’ choice, the Jaguars trade with Baltimore to move up to the eighth choice. The Ravens get a first rounder, two third rounders, and a fourth round selection.

WW: I like this trade from the Ravens' perspective. They weren't able to get the guy they really wanted in Matt Ryan, so it makes sense to move back and get the second highest rated passer on their board.

4:01 – MK: With the new pick, the Jaguars take Florida DE Derrick Harvey. Kiper likes Harvey but still thinks the pick is too high. I agree with Kiper; he’s persuasive. Maybe it’s the hair.

4:03 – USC LB Keith Rivers is on the phone, and someone hands him a Bengals hat to put on. So much for trying to hide anything.

4:07 – The Bengals take Rivers. No one could see that coming.

4:11 – Another Under Armour commercial is on; they’re really starting to get annoying. I guess just wearing Under Armour gives anyone the right to wear spikes everywhere, yell at everyone, and storm the street with an angry mob. Good to know.

WW: The bad thing is that kids buy that stuff and think it will magically make them better athletes. Well, the University of Maryland football team wears Under Armour, and they finished 6-7 with a loss in the Emerald Nuts Bowl.

4:13 – MK: The Patriots take Tennessee LB Jerod Mayo. Junior Seau may be on his way out in New England. Chris Berman makes a “holding the Mayo” joke, which is surprisingly his first lame comment of the day.

4:18 – The Buffalo Bills take CB Leodis McKelvin out of Troy. Kiper thought Devin Thomas would have been a better fit, and Keyshawn Johnson disagrees. The other panelists are trying to gang up on Kiper, but he’s holding his ground like a champ. Good for you, Mel.

WW: It really wasn't a fair argument, though. Mel Kiper and his hair have been doing NFL draft analysis since the early 80's, or before Chris Berman had to resort to a horrible comb over hairstyle.

4:23 – MK: With the twelfth selection, the Denver Broncos pick OT Ryan Clady out of Boise State to help protect Jay Cutler. But who’s going to protect Mike Shanahan?

WW: I wouldn't worry about Mike Shanahan. When the world ends, the only things left will be cockroaches, orange drink, Al Davis, unsold Danny Wuerffel jerseys, and Mike Shanahan.

4:28 – MK: The Carolina Panthers take Jonathan Stewart, a RB out of Oregon. This selection seems very smart, and Stewart may form a solid backfield with DeAngelo Williams.

4:36 – The Chicago Bears take Vanderbilt OT Chris Williams. Many Bears fans wanted a running back, especially with the performance of Cedric Benson last season. The draft panel immediately changes the topic to Brian Urlacher; I guess this pick wasn’t important enough to talk about.

WW: Nope, not really.

4:42 – MK: The Chiefs trade up with Detroit and take G/T Branden Albert from Virginia. By taking Dorsey and Albert so far, the Chiefs seem to be on the way to improving in a hurry.

WW: If by improve in a hurry you mean in three years, I agree.

4:53 – MK: The Arizona Cardinals select Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a CB out of Tennessee State. Detroit’s pick is in right after, but for some reason we’re at a commercial break. Thanks, ESPN!

WW: It is hard to hate on ESPN for the commercials since the cost of Mel Kiper's hair alone accounts for about 40 percent of the ad revenue.

4:57 – MK: Detroit picks OT Gosder Cherilus out of Boston College, and Baltimore trades up to the 18th slot. Apparently they want to draft a quarterback.

5:01 – While on camera, QB Joe Flacco’s mom yells, “Baltimore!” I wonder if he’ll be a Raven.

WW: You gotta cut his mom some slack here. She's happy for her son to get drafted and probably even happier to realize that she is probably getting a new car and house. That enthusiasm was probably tempered, however, when she realized that her son was going to the same Baltimore whose claim to fame is “The Wire.”

5:03 – MK: In stunning fashion, the Ravens select Flacco, who played at Delaware. Move over Kyle Boller and Troy Smith.

WW: This might prove to be a decent pick, but the Ravens better not expect to start Flacco immediately unless they plan on drafting another quarterback next year. The competition in the NFL is just a tad higher than in the CAA.

5:08 – MK: Kirk Herbstreit discusses the number of bad-to-average quarterbacks in the NFL. I can’t argue that.

WW: Actually, I'm surprised no one called out Herbstreit since his own NFL career never happened.

5:09 – MK: The Panthers trade up to number 19 (from the Eagles) and take OT Jeff Otah out of Pittsburgh, but they give up a second round choice, a fourth round choice, and a 2009 first round pick in the process. I’m not sure if that’s really worth moving up to take Otah.

WW: Probably not, because they could have gotten a good player who has already proven himself instead of getting some unproven rookie. Plus you've gotta assume that Carolina's 1st pick next year is going to be pretty high.

5:20 – MK: Tampa Bay, with the 20th choice, selects CB Aqib Talib out of Kansas. It seems to be a solid choice even though Talib looks like he’s 30.

WW: It doesn't matter to me how old he really is. If baseball has taught us anything, it’s that lying about your age doesn't have a whole lot to do with production, or lack thereof. Look at Julio Franco; he said he was 47, but it was obvious to me he was pushing 60.

5:29 – MK: The Redskins trade the 21st selection to the Falcons, who then take Sam Baker, an OT from USC. The Falcons might as well have someone to help protect the new face of the franchise, Matt Ryan.

WW: This is where ESPN started to annoy me. They never actually mentioned the terms of the deal. For all I knew the Redskins traded the pick for a Chesapeake late night hot dog.

5:38 – MK: Two running backs are taken in a row: Felix Jones out of Arkansas goes to Dallas; Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois goes to Pittsburgh. Both picks make a lot of sense for each team. Mendenhall apparently “runs with attitude,” which is good to know.

WW: That is great to know. You don't want to draft a guy who runs with “manners,” “caution,” or “conscience”; this is the NFL.

5:50 – MK: The Tennessee Titans make a reach and take RB Chris Johnson out of East Carolina. The panel thinks that the Titans need a wide receiver for Vince Young.

WW: Who knows, the Titans might be getting ready to revert to a veer option offense. In that case you really don't need wideouts. There are only four plays in the playbook, but they work like Novocaine.

5:58 – MK: The Cowboys move up to the 25th spot and select CB Mike Jenkins out of South Florida. This choice seems to fill a huge need – helping S Roy Williams cover someone in the secondary.

WW: Actually, I think the point of this pick was to make sure Roy Williams never has to actually cover anyone in the secondary. Now he can just go around looking to hit people.

6:05 – MK: The next few picks seem to go without any problems: the Texans take OT Duane Brown, the Chargers take CB Antoine Cason, the Seahawks take DE Lawrence Jackson, the 49ers take DT Kentwan Balmer, the Jets take TE Dustin Keller (which mildly irritates some Jets’ fans), and the Giants draft S Kenny Phillips.

WW: And that will conclude our coverage of the first round of the NFL's annual selection meeting. We really hope you enjoyed this brief look at the first round, but if you didn't, it won't affect me too much. This paper is free, we work for free, and it’s not like there's anything else in this rag that’s a whole helluva lot better.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Win or go home: Eastern Conference

(Originally written on 4/18/08 for FSU's The Bottom Line)

The NBA Playoffs are underway after what may have been the most entertaining and interesting NBA regular season in quite some time. The Boston Celtics (66-16) and Detroit Pistons (59-23) appear to be the clear favorites heading into the playoffs in the East, but things don’t appear to be so clear-cut in the West, where only seven games separate the number one seed, the L.A. Lakers (57-25), from the number eight seed, the Denver Nuggets (50-32). But even though the East as a whole can’t stack up against the West, the first round still offers some very intriguing matchups for both conferences.

No. 1 Boston Celtics face the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (37-45). During the regular season, the Celtics won all three games over the Hawks. With Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, the Hawks present a strong and athletic starting lineup; however, the Hawks only have one formidable player on their bench -- Josh Childress. Their starters play heavy minutes, and in a series against a defensive-minded team like the Celtics, the Hawks are going to need some extra help. Unfortunately, they just don’t have that extra gear, but the Celtics, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, do. Garnett and the rest of the Celtics shouldn’t have a problem containing the Hawks.

Key matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Mike Bibby. Acquired in a trade with the Kings, Bibby has given the Hawks a steady point guard and three-point shooter. Rondo has improved tremendously for the Celtics this year, and he may be the best defensive point guard in the East. If the Hawks are going to have any chance to beat the Celtics, they will all have to shoot well, especially Bibby. If Rondo can keep him in check, don’t look for any repeat of Golden State and Dallas from last season.

Prediction: Celtics in 4

No. 2 Detroit Pistons face the No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers (40-42). The Sixers completely turned their season around in the second half of the season and were one of the hottest teams over that stretch. Their season series against the Pistons serves as a perfect example: the Pistons beat the Sixers twice in the first half, but the Sixers won both games over the Pistons in the second half to even the season series. The Sixers have the talent on the bench to support their starters, and those young players, Jason Smith, Thaddeus Young, and Louis Williams, may help the Sixers steal a game or two. The Pistons, though, play defense and have a veteran starting lineup: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess. They also have an athletic big man, Jason Maxiell, coming off the bench.

Key matchup: Tayshaun Prince vs. Andre Iguodala. Prince, with his long arms and quick hands, is one of the best defenders in the league. Iguodala is the best scorer and athlete on the Sixers. If Prince can bother Iguodala and shut him down, the Pistons should be on their way to the second round.

Prediction: Pistons in 5

No. 3 Orlando Magic (52-30) face the No. 6 Toronto Raptors (41-41). The Raptors will play Orlando after completing an average second half. Their star player, Chris Bosh, appears to be close to 100 percent, though he did miss 15 games this season with a few injuries, primarily a sore knee. The Magic, on the other hand, completed a very strong season, led by Dwight Howard (20.7 points, 14.2 rebounds) and Hedo Turkoglu (19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists). This series may turn out closer than expected because both teams play the same style of basketball; they both have one outstanding post player in Bosh and Howard, and both teams shoot and make lots of threes.

Key matchup: Chris Bosh vs. Rashard Lewis. Since Howard is more of a center, he probably won’t be guarding Bosh one-on-one. Lewis is a decent defensive player, but Bosh may be able to score at will in the post if the Magic don’t choose to double-team him. On offense, Lewis (18.2 points) will need to hit open shots and keep Bosh away from the basket to open up the floor for Howard and Turkoglu.

Prediction: Magic in 6

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37) face the No. 5 Washington Wizards (43-39). Without a doubt, this series is the most intriguing first round matchup in the East as the two teams meet in the first round for the third consecutive year. The Cavs have knocked the Wizards out of the playoffs the last two seasons, but the Wizards appear to be healthy and are tired of being pushed around. A little after the halfway point of the season, Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James “overrated” after a win. Was that a smart move? Probably not. But while the quote may have given the Cavs and James some bulletin board material heading into the series, the Wizards don’t seem to care and are ready to play. Caron Butler won’t be 100 percent, but he will play, enabling the Wizards to have the big three, Gilbert Arenas, Butler, and Antawn Jamison, which is something they didn’t have in the postseason last year. Arenas will come off the bench as the sixth man, which could cause some problems for the Cavs, who will already be without forward Sasha Pavlovic, who has a sprained left ankle. But with a superstar like LeBron James, the Cavs have a chance against anyone, no matter what.

Key matchup: Antawn Jamison vs. Ben Wallace. Some people believe the Cavs’ trade that sent Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden away and brought Ben Wallace, Delonte West, and Wally Szczerbiak in made the team better, but many believe the trade didn’t help at all. The final say should be given in this series since Wallace is sure to be tested. Wallace is really an undersized center, but the Cavs already have a center -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas will guard Brendan Haywood, which forces Wallace to play power forward to guard Jamison. Jamison, the Wizards’ power forward, doesn’t play like a typical four. He has an array of unorthodox post moves, hook shots, and flip shots, but he can also shoot threes and score from the perimeter. If Wallace has to chase Jamison all over the floor, Arenas and Butler may be able to drive to the bucket and score points in the paint.

Prediction: Wizards in 7

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What could still be

(Originally written on 4/11/08 for FSU's The Bottom Line here)

The Major League Baseball season is only a few weeks old, but some teams have already failed at managing to avoid injuries to star players while also slowly beginning to weather the long, difficult 162-game season. John Lackey won’t return for the Angels until May, Pedro Martinez of the Mets is out four to six weeks with a left hamstring strain, and Mariners closer J.J. Putz is currently on the 15-day disabled list after suffering inflammation in his right torso.

Avoiding significant injuries for an entire season is nearly impossible for any team, but solid, deep organizations can usually handle the loss of certain players by trading for more talent or utilizing strong farm systems.

Teams that lose star players always have the chance to recover at some point down the road, but many injured players simply don’t recover at all. Injuries always seem to come at inopportune times; no athlete ever responds to an injury by saying, “Well, I had a feeling I’d get injured today. I’m okay with it.” Injuries rob athletes of the chance to perform well in something they love, and they rob fans of more opportunities to witness those remarkable athletes. But they also force athletes to dig deep and develop a level of mental toughness and strength they never thought they had.

Recently, Rich Harden of the Oakland A’s was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained right shoulder. Harden, only 26 years old, has been placed on the DL six times in the last four years and has not been able to stay healthy so far. In his brief yet injury-riddled career, Harden has shown flashes of brilliance. In 2004, Harden’s second season, he finished with 11 wins, a 3.99 ERA, and 167 strikeouts, and in 2005, he won 10 games, registered a superb 2.53 ERA, and struck out 121 batters, despite only pitching in 22 games. Harden surely would be an incredible pitcher year-in and year-out if he could only stay healthy, but ifs don’t sound too reassuring after six DL stints.

Harden is one of a few baseball players who still have the chance to revive their careers. Mike Hampton of the Atlanta Braves and Rocco Baldelli of the Tampa Bay Rays are other examples, but the most talented player who can’t stay healthy may be Mark Prior. When Prior was drafted with the second overall choice by the Chicago Cubs in 2001, he was projected to win multiple Cy Young awards and team with Kerry Wood to lead the Cubs to the promised land. In 2003, his second season, Prior dominated the competition, finished 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts, and helped lead the Cubs into the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. The Cubs lost in heartbreaking fashion, but Prior had shown his potential by finishing third in the Cy Young award voting.

Prior’s injury concerns began in 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury. He had a disappointing season, but he seemed to return to form in 2005 (11-7, 3.67 ERA, 188 Ks) except for being sidelined briefly in May when he suffered a compression fracture in his elbow from a comebacker to the mound. After straining his shoulder in 2006, though, Prior was never the same. Many people blamed former Cubs manager Dusty Baker for allowing Prior to record high pitch totals so early in his career, and others just thought he morphed into another injury-prone pitcher. Prior, who is now on the San Diego Padres, is still recovering from major shoulder surgery and hopes to somehow become the same pitcher he was in 2003.

Another routinely-injured player, Nomar Garciaparra, seems to be entering the twilight of his career. Coming up through the farm system of the Boston Red Sox, Garciaparra could always do one thing -- hit. As a rookie in 1997, Garciaparra hit .306 with 30 home runs, won the Rookie of the Year award, and earned the Silver Slugger for the shortstop position. But Garciaparra, who was supposed to be just as good, if not better, than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, had only showed a small portion of his potential. In his next three seasons, Garciaparra finished with batting averages of .323, .357, and .372, respectively. In 1998, he finished second in MVP voting while hitting 35 home runs and knocking in 122 runs. He never stole many bases and didn’t play particularly good defense at shortstop, but Garciaparra could always hit the ball.

Garciaparra suffered a serious wrist injury in 2001 while with the Red Sox, but he managed to recover, and he continued to post solid offensive numbers. After being traded to the Cubs in 2004, he hit well for average, but his slugging and on-base percentages dropped off significantly from earlier in his career. Then, Garciaparra tore his left groin in 2005, and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy since.

Now a member of the L.A. Dodgers, he has spent time on the DL with knee injuries and oblique strains. He’s currently on the DL with a microfracture injury in his right hand. With all of the injuries, Garciaparra has been forced to play first base, yet he still may be on his way out of L.A. with the emergence of highly-touted prospect James Loney. Only time will tell whether or not he can return to the field and be able to consistently perform once again.

But then again, the question seems to be the same for all injured athletes: what happens next?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Quick hitters

(Originally written on 4/4/08 for FSU's The Bottom Line here)

-- After a tumultuous basketball season, Indiana University seems to have landed on its feet with the recent hiring of Tom Crean. With Crean now on board to lead the Hoosiers, the basketball team and its fans will now try to forget the brief yet embarrassing era of head coach Kelvin Sampson, who was fired earlier in the season for violating telephone recruiting restrictions. In 1999, Crean left his associate head coaching position at Michigan State to assume the head coaching position at Marquette. Taking over an average team in the Conference USA, Crean had his work cut out for him. After two consecutive 15-14 seasons, Crean guided Marquette to a 26-7 record in 2001-2002 and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997. The very next season, Crean, with the help of a young superstar-in-the-making named Dwayne Wade, led Marquette to a Conference USA regular season title and its first Final Four appearance in over 25 years. Since that season, Marquette has finished 19-12, 19-12, 20-11, and 24-10, with the latest strong season coming to an end with a heartbreaking second round loss to Stanford on a last-second shot. Crean was a class act at Marquette and a coach who turned an average team into a national power in the Conference USA and eventually the Big East. Hoosier fans could not have asked for a better choice to lead the program.

-- Two very different playoff races are taking place in the NBA’s Eastern and Western Conferences. In the East, three teams are currently tied for fifth at 38-37: Washington, Toronto, and Philadelphia. Atlanta is eighth at 35-40, and two other teams at 31-44, New Jersey and Indiana, are on the outside looking in and are just about eliminated. But in the West, three teams, Dallas (47-28), Denver (46-29), and Golden State (45-30) are all battling for the seventh and eighth playoff spots. During the final stretch of the season, one of those teams will probably not make the playoffs, which may not seem fair considering Atlanta’s sub-.500 record may be enough to get them in. Any of the top nine teams in the West could have a legitimate chance to make noise in the playoffs. For example, the Houston Rockets recently completed a 22-game win streak, the second-longest streak in NBA history, but at this very moment, the Rockets are in sixth place in the West. Such a run has not been enough to even keep them in the top four in the West. Be prepared for a bunch of fans (probably from the team that does not get in) and NBA analysts to start complaining about how the NBA needs a drastic plan to re-seed teams to make sure the best teams get in. Every so often a conference or league gets stacked with talented teams. Very good teams in the MLB and the NFL get left out of the playoffs all the time, but usually, the teams are to blame, not the league or playoff format. Last year, the Browns had the chance to solidify its playoff hopes over the Bengals in Week 16 -- they lost, and the Titans grabbed the sixth and final spot. The Mets also blew a significant lead over the Phillies last year in the NL East by finishing 6-13 in the last 19 games in September. It’s always easy to point to the other league and say that one team is better than another, but if a team folds when the pressure is on, they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs anyway.

-- A few new rules changes have been adopted for the upcoming NFL season: field goals are now reviewable by instant replay, defensive players (one on each team) can wear radios in their helmets, and five-yard facemask penalties no longer exist. Arguably, the biggest rule change is the elimination of the force-out rule, meaning that receivers must now get two feet in bounds for a pass to be ruled a completion. Before, if receivers were pushed out of bounds by defenders and could not get two feet in bounds, referees were supposed to make judgment calls about whether or not the receiver could have gotten two feet in if he was not pushed in the first place. The rule does eliminate a lot of guessing by referees, but it also shrinks the field and may cause scoring to slightly dip next season.

-- Sometimes analysts should really stop overreacting and overanalyzing certain things. Case and point: before the MLB season even started, analysts on ESPN were arguing about whether the Detroit Tigers would have the greatest offense of all time. Now, after that the Tigers had a poor showing by getting swept in a three-game series by the Kansas City Royals, some of the same analysts are already jumping off of the proverbial bandwagon. Maybe they should just stop with all of the crazy projections and at least let a few weeks pass by before making other bold statements. I seriously doubt that the Tigers, let alone anyone else, would seriously consider their season over after just three games.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Trend of Violence by Parents and Adults in Youth Sports

I wrote an article for my a class last year (here). Recently, I edited it and moved some things around, and I think I made it a little bit better. At the very least, it's pretty interesting and disturbing at the same time just to look at the certain incidents that took (and still do take) place.

Here it is:

In July of 2000, Thomas Junta watched his ten-year-old son participate in a pick-up hockey game at an ice rink in Reading, Massachusetts. During the game, Junta grew increasingly infuriated with the rough level of play on the ice, and he yelled for the man monitoring play, Michael Costin, to make the kids tone it down. Costin, who also had a son participating in the game, was confronted by Mr. Junta on the ice before Junta was ordered to leave.

Later that same day, Junta returned to the facility, found Costin, and slammed him down on the concrete floor next to a soda machine. If the severity of that blow was not enough, Junta then proceeded to wedge Costin to the floor using his knee and repeatedly punch him in the head. Costin died soon after the fight ended.

After the incident, Junta was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six to ten years in prison.

While this tragic event may seem like an isolated act of violence, it highlights a disturbing growth in the number of incidents of abuse and violence by adults in youth sports. According to Regan McMahon of the San Francisco Chronicle, such incidents “have risen dramatically in the past five years.”

“From road rage to airplane rage to cell phone rage, children in sports aren’t immune to all of this,” said Fred Engh, head of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “Now we have sideline rage.”

Sporting Kids Magazine recently conducted a survey of 3,300 parents, coaches, and youth, in response to which 84 percent admitted to having “witnessed parents acting violently (shouting, berating, using abusive language).” The National Alliance reported that parent violence in youth sports has “quadrupled between 2000 and 2005,” and the group has seen reports that “documented 100 incidents of parents or fans physically assaulting youth sports coaches or officials in 2005.”

Bob Still, a spokesman for the National Association of Sporting Officials (NASO), said that his organization receives “two or three reports of this kind of behavior a week.” A trend has definitely formed, and the problem is growing.

“The parent of today is much different than the parent of five years ago,” said Engh. “It used to be maybe five percent of the people stepped over the line. It’s grown now to about 15 percent.”

Adults and parents are not just verbally expressing their anger at coaches or sporting officials anymore; they are actually exhibiting violence as a way to show their displeasure. One such incident in South Dakota involved an adult man striking a referee in a soccer match involving 11-year-old girls. The referee happened to be the town’s mayor, and the man was sentenced to one year in jail. Another incident occurred in Pennsylvania when a former police officer offered a Little League baseball pitcher two dollars to hit an opposing player with a fastball. The officer was charged with soliciting assault. Yet another confrontation took place in Wisconsin when a baseball coach of 11 and 12-year-olds followed a 62-year-old volunteer umpire into an equipment room and repeatedly punched the umpire in the face. The coach had been upset over an apparent non-call during the game.

Thousands of incidents of violence have been reported, and as more reports of violence by adults continue to flow in from all over the U.S., the question of why this problem persists arises. Parents and coaches seem to be more aware of the mounting issue because of the attention it receives, yet many still feel the need to react violently during youth sporting events.

Several excuses have been offered to try to partially explain why these occurrences keep happening. One reason is pride or hope, and some parents may believe their child will become the next superstar athlete who achieves immense fame and wealth. A father in San Fernando, California, assaulted his 11-year-old son’s baseball coach for removing the boy in the middle of the game. “How dare you make my son a three-inning player,” the father yelled at the coach. Maybe he figured his son would become the next Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken, Jr.

Some parents also may feel the need to push their child into sports because they were never talented enough themselves to go very far. Because realizing their previous shortcomings in sports is very difficult for some parents, they may treat every moment for their child on the court or field as a win-or-else experience. Some parents even constantly and visibly criticize their own child athletes for apparent failure or mistakes. “[Sometimes] it’s not the kid at bat,” said Engh. “It’s the parent.”

Violent adults also may be reflecting on the nature of sports themselves, which is inherently violent. Big hits, rough plays, and destructive athletic behaviors are glorified on ESPN’s SportsCenter and on the internet at websites such as YouTube. Parents may get the idea that their child can be just as aggressive as professional athletes and, therefore, just as successful. And if their child struggles or doesn’t turn out to be supremely talented, they blame everyone else involved in what transpires during practices and games.

No matter how many other explanations exist, the issue of declining sportsmanship, especially by parents, remains. Obviously, not all parents have difficulty controlling themselves at youth sporting events. Many parents understand how to express their desire for kids to have fun while hoping their child succeeds as well. At the same time, though, youth sports have been littered with many overbearing parental figures that care for winning at all costs instead of hoping that kids make friends, learn important lessons in teamwork, and have an enjoyable time competing.

Oddly enough, many parents still wonder why willing volunteers, coaches, and officials continue to decline annually. According to a survey by NASO, 76 percent of respondents from 60 high school athletic associations believed adult violence in youth sports “is causing many officials to quit.”

“It’s not worth risking your life [to umpire] for $50 a game,” said Still. “What we’re concerned about is the tone and tenor have changed. Now they come at you with a bat in hand a real intent to hurt.”

Though many people like Engh and Still continue to educate adults and parents on the dangers of abuse and violence at youth sporting events, such violent instances still frequently occur. Unfortunately, William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, noted that these violent episodes may just be “the tip of [the] iceberg.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Feelin good in Philly

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t supposed to be in the playoff picture this year; they were supposed to go through the motions and end up in the lottery at the end of the season. For a while, they were on pace to do just that.

Led by third-year head coach Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers started off the season in a familiar way -- slowly. At the end of November, December, and January, the Sixers were 5-10, 14-17, and 18-28, respectively. Other than Andre Iguodala (19.9 points), Andre Miller (17.0 points), and Willie Green (12.5 points), the Sixers seemingly had no other reliable scorers on a very young team. Iguodala was not happy, and Miller’s name was thrown around in endless trade rumors that made it seem like he would be shipped out at any minute.

As the season rolled along, though, things began to take shape in Philadelphia. They traded away Kyle Korver, a deadly shooter but a stationary player, and went with a lineup of young, energetic, and athletic swingmen, who happen to all be less than 24 years old -- Louis Williams (21), Thaddeus Young (19), Rodney Carney (23), and Jason Smith (22). They’ve also chipped in to the scoring cause -- Williams (11.3), Young (7.9), Carney (5.9), and Smith (4.7).

Cheeks injected some new life into his team by giving more playing time to this young core and letting Iguodala (also only 24 years old) and Miller (6.8 assists) wreak havoc on opposing defenses by pushing the tempo and playing a faster-paced game. Last season the Sixers scored 94.9 points per game, and this year that average is up to 96.8.

The Sixers are also playing better defense and protecting the rim. They’re currently allowing 95.9 points per game, down from allowing 98.0 per game last season. Philadelphia ranks fourth in the NBA with almost 8.6 steals per game and 12th with 4.9 blocks per game. Center Samuel Dalembert ranks fourth in the league with almost 2.4 blocks per game, and Iguodala ranks sixth in steals with nearly 2.1 per game.

After going 4-11 in January, the revitalized Sixers rolled off five consecutive wins in February right before the All-Star break. Since the break, the Sixers went from being 23-30 and out of the playoff picture to 37-35 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, being in the weaker East has certainly helped, but the Sixers have still managed an outstanding 14-5 record since the break, with wins over solid teams like Orlando, Phoenix, Detroit, San Antonio, Denver, and Boston. So far, the Sixers are 11-2 in March, putting them only one half game behind the Washington Wizards for fifth place.

Only time will tell whether the Sixers, provided they make the playoffs, will improve enough to have a chance to win a postseason series against some of the East’s top teams. But not since the glory days in Philadelphia in 2001 when Allen Iverson was carrying the likes of Jumaine Jones, Matt Geiger, and Todd MacCulloch into the NBA Finals have Sixers fans had as much to be excited about.