Sunday, March 25, 2007

There are no words...

This game was over. But then....

Listen, like most of you I had never heard of either one of these schools. Doesn't matter - this was easily the most unlikely, unbelievable, amazing, fantastic finish you will ever see in a basketball game, at any level. The fact that it was in a championship game just adds to its awesomeness.

Wow. I just watched it again and still have trouble believing it.

Hockey 101

Did you happen to catch the fight in the Rangers/Flyers game earlier this week? To me, nothing better encapsulated the mindset of a hockey player than those few minutes. A little background:

In the previous meeting between the teams, Philadelphia tough guy Todd Fedoruk was taking runs at some of the high profile “skill” players, like Jaromir Jagr. His motives were unclear – was he running the big guys in an effort to simply rattle them? Or, was he taking shots knowing that his counterpart in the Ranger uniform, Colton Orr, was not dressed for the game? Either way, he did his thing, and hockey fans knew that with another meeting between the teams on tap in a few weeks, this was by no means over.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday, Madison Square Garden. Twenty eight seconds in, both Fedoruk and Orr are on the ice, and everyone in the building knows what’s going down. As Orr skates by, he gives Fedoruk a little tap on the leg with his stick – the universal signal for “let’s do this”. Within a second, the gloves are thrown down and the players are squared off. A typical fight between two skilled combatants ensues, as each has a good grip on the other’s jersey with the left hand, while trying to land shots with the right. Then….well, words don’t do it justice. Let’s go the video:

What’s best about this? Where do I start? First, Orr shows genuine concern for the man he just floored. As soon as Fedoruk hit the ice, the beef was done. Second, Fedoruk went down like a sack of potatoes, which is not something often seen in a hockey fight. The kicker, however, was when the fallen Flyer implored the trainers not to immobilize his neck and take him out on a stretcher. Hockey players never want to go out like that!

As much as they’ve tried, the powers that be cannot legislate this out of the game. It is, and always has been, part of the fabric of hockey. Rarely does anyone get seriously injured, despite what you just saw. This is an aggressive, emotional, fast-paced game. The occasional letting off steam needs to occur, and the players have a way of policing themselves.

The comparisons are inevitably made with other sports, but it really is apples and oranges. Basketball in particular gets hammered whenever a brawl occurs, but few seem to notice the differences between a hockey fight and a hoop fight. Recent NBA fights were nothing more than free-for-alls, spilling into the stands and involving spectators. The fear during these incidents, most notably the Ron Artest flare-up in Detroit and the recent Knicks/Nuggets melee at MSG, was palpable, as chaos reigned. Race is unnecessarily dragged into the equation, but I don’t think that is the issue. If the NBA were an all white league (or all Hispanic, or all Asian), the issue would not be any different. The point is fighting is not part of the game, and that lack of structure is part of the problem. Commissioner David Stern has toughened his stance, imposing lengthy suspensions on those involved, and that is really his only course of action. Once players know that crossing the line will cost them a good chunk of the season (along with the corresponding pay), they will think twice before throwing that right hook.

Baseball, though a little bit more self-policing, still has its share of incidents as well. The majority involve pitchers throwing at or close to hitters, though the occasional hard slide (see Rose v. Harrelson, 1973 NLCS) can lead to a dust-up. As with the NBA, there is no structure, though it usually boils down to a few guys in the middle of the scrum with everyone else trying to keep the peace or break it up. On occasion other peripheral skirmishes will break out, but for the most part the fight is contained. There exists a sense of finality, though, that once each side has had someone get drilled the matter is settled. Suspensions are common, but less severe than in the NBA.

Hockey deals with these issues head on. When a fight breaks out, rules both written and unwritten immediately apply. If you decide to join the battle (third man in), you’re gone. Once two guys square off, the other players must back away and let them go. The referees know the value of letting it play itself out, since breaking it up right away not only runs the risk of getting clocked themselves, but will likely result in the same two guys going after each other the next time they’re on the ice together. The penalties are harsh and swift, and once the dust settles the game resumes. This is not to give a pass to those coaches who employ goon tactics, but is more a defense of the natural occurrence of fights during a normal hockey game. Thuggery can be an ugly spectacle, but the practice has thankfully decreased over the last few years.

Enjoy the intensity of the NHL, which at is core is still a great game, in spite of the mismanagement of the Gary Bettman era. That is a whole ‘nother column.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Bottom Line Hasn't Changed

Hey, Pete Rose is back in the news! The beleaguered ex-big leauger appeared with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann on their radio show yesterday where he slipped in this little nugget:

I bet on the Reds every night.

Wow. that settles it then, doesn't it? He bet on his own team, every night, to win. Therefore, all suspicion of any impropriety should be removed. Except....

What if he bet more money one night (say, when ace Mario Soto was on the mound) than the next night (with Bill Gullickson pitching)? Wouldn't that tip off the bookies and skew the lines, thus implicate Rose in "fixing" the game in some way?
I normally agree with much of what Olbermann says, but on this one I'm a little confused. Baseball has basically one big no-no to which one must adhere: No Betting on Baseball. That's pretty much it, unless you're stupid enough to take a supplement that shows up when MLB tests your urine, you can run wild. Nothing changes the fact that Rose, no matter how contrite he is twenty years after the fact, violated this one rule many, many times.
I think he'll eventually end up in the Hall of Fame, despite all this, as the furor over the transgression will eventually die down. It doesn't mean he belongs there.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Waka Waka Waka

The NFL’s hand may finally be forced regarding off field player behavior, thanks to Tennessee DB Adam “Pacman” Jones. The second year player, who has a history of run-ins with the law, may have finally crossed the line a few weekends ago. You have no doubt by now heard about the strip club incident, the latest in a long line of legal problems for Jones. Though he didn’t pull the trigger, he could easily be seen as the one responsible for the end result.

Where should the blame be placed? Let’s look at some of the suspects:

Hip Hop Culture
Easy to target, but hard to change. The rampant materialism that has engulfed hip hop over the past few years isn’t totally new, but the degree to which the narcissism of rap has escalated is indeed troubling. While the majority of the artists come from poorer backgrounds, making the pursuit of wealth understandable, the whole get rich or die trying mentality mostly leads down empty roads. No wonder groups like Public Enemy are considered passé by today’s rappers. Employing a strong social conscience while eschewing the trappings of fame (“gold brains, not gold chains” as Chuck D used to say) runs directly opposite the mentality of rappers in 2007. The fact that Pacman and his crew were basically re-enacting a scene from a hip hop video displaying pure displays of wealth sprinkled with misogyny shows the impact of the culture on young people who suddenly have too much money on their hands. Now, get the hell off my lawn you damn kids.

The league has had the perception of running a very tight ship over the years, but a closer look shows that may not be the case. Compare the revelations of steroid use in the NFL with that of Major League Baseball – football doles out a four game suspension and moves on, while baseball contemplates the destruction of all that we know to be good and pure. The bottom line has always been how much can a player do for us on the field, off field behavior be damned. While there is a limit to how much control the league can exhibit over off the field actions, it is clear that some action needs to be taken. In the past year alone, we’ve seen multiple arrests of members of the Cincinnati Bengals, the whole Tank Johnson fiasco, and now Pacman. Compare these examples with you, and your job. Would you still be employed if you were arrested? Most likey not.
I don’t have the answer, but since there are some powerful, smart minds working in the NFL offices, I’m sure they can develop some kind of system that rewards good behavior while punishing the bad apples that only server to wreck the reputation of the league. Get on that, Mr. Goddell.

The Tennessee Titans
Drafting Jones involved dealing with the existing baggage, as he already had a pretty decent rap sheet before draft day. The risks taken by the Titans were big, as Jones received first round money. Had they passed on him, he would have been snapped up pretty quickly by one of the next teams on the clock, so they bit the bullet and made the choice. Now, the downside of the risk is being realized, as they stand to lose an impact player. Look, I understand the NFL is a business, and most teams probably have the attitude that they can help change the behavior of a player once he becomes involved with their system. That might be true in some cases, but it’s very obvious that Jones hasn’t matured one iota since going pro. Should any action be handed down which involves a suspension, it is the Titans that will pay the big price, but they knew the risks going in.

Pacman himself
What? Holding an adult responsible for his actions you say? Impossible, especially in today’s culture!


Nobody is more responsible for the problems of Pacman Jones more than Pacman Jones. He has been given an amazing gift, as his play on the field is truly exciting to watch. His impact on the Titans in 2006, coupled with the emergence if QB Vince Young, has made Tennessee one of the teams to watch in 2007. His inability to control his impulses off the field, running with the wrong crowd, hanging out at the wrong places, etc. are all decisions he made, not anyone else. It has to be difficult to be handed a pile of money at a younger age, but that is not an excuse as hundreds of other players have been put in the same situation and not seen the need to shower strippers with money that assault them when they tried to pick it up. Will this latest incident be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back? Don’t know, but if it isn’t, either the NFL or the legal system will make sure he gets the message eventually.