Friday, November 27, 2009

PC gone wild

We’ve gotten to a point in our culture where we have to watch every single thing we say; jokes aren’t funny, and people take everything too literally.

There is one type of humor that is especially off-limits – racial or ethnic humor. We are so worried about political correctness that we can’t even mention any race or ethnicity without someone being offended.

A few weeks ago, college football announcer Bob Griese was suspended for making a comment about Columbian NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya. During a promotional spot, a graphic was shown listing the top five drivers in NASCAR’s points race. Fellow analyst Chris Spielman asked where was driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who is Colombian. Griese replied: "Out having a taco."

Insensitive? Yes. Deserving of a suspension despite repeated apologies? I don't believe so.
I guess what announcers and people in general need to realize is that any ethnic or racial jokes are completely forbidden.

I can kind of see why Griese was suspended, not that I agree with it, and I can certainly see why people like Don Imus - who made completely racist and unacceptable comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team a few years ago - are suspended or fired. If something offends an entire group of people, then it shouldn’t be said, and if it is said, then the offended should be punished.

However, this past week our overreaction to political correctness boiled over. After a NBA game between the L.A. Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, two basketball announcers were suspended for an exchange regarding the first Iranian player in the NBA.

Los Angeles Clippers TV announcers Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith were suspended for one game because after they spoke of Hamed Haddidi, a Clippers fan who watched the telecast complained about the verbal exchange and said he was owed an apology today from Fox Sports.

One viewer made a complaint, and because of that, the announcers were forced to apologize for what I see as a simple error. The comment that the viewer complained about was the pronunciation of "Iranian." Apparently Smith pronounced it "Eye-Ranian," which the viewer found offensive.

An announcer should not have to publically apologize or be reprimanded for pronunciation, unless it is meant in an offensive manner. In this case, it was not anything except someone with a slight regional accent saying the word "Iranian" in a different pronunciation than is normally viewed as correct.

The official apology released was: "We regret the remarks made by Clippers announcers Michael Smith and Ralph Lawler during Wednesday's telecast. While we believe that Michael and Ralph did not intend their exchange to be offensive, the comments were inappropriate."

So in other words, they said something, meant nothing by it, but have to apologize because it could have been taken the wrong way. Give me a break!

People need to realize that sports announcers are in the business of entertainment, and their exchange was banter trying to be humorous.

Maybe the complaint was taken so seriously because of the tumultuous relationship we currently have with Iran, or maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we quite literally can’t even refer to a person’s race, ethnicity or country of origin when discussing them. It’s PC run wild.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just not PC enough.

Athletes are role models, like it or not

(Ran 11/19)

Athletes are role models, whether they like it or not.

The problem is, the sports headlines each day are always of the troubled athlete, the cheaters or the losers, not the athletes we want our children to look up to.

Mike Tyson was recently arrested, again; this time for allegedly punching a photographer at the airport.

In September, LeGarrette Blount was suspended for the entire season by the University of Oregon for punching an opposing player in the Ducks season-opening loss to Boise State. (The suspension was recently lifted, with Blount having sat out eight games.)

Super Bowl-winning wide receiver Plaxico Burress recently reported to prison to begin a two-year sentence for carrying an unregistered handgun.

I know many athletes don’t ask to be role models, but they need to know and remember that it comes with the territory. When you are paid millions of dollars to play a sport, and you do it in front of a television audience of millions, it doesn’t matter what you asked for — you become a role model.

Of course I’m focusing on the bad examples. There are plenty of good stories out there; the problem is that we don’t hear about them.

On Saturday, boxer Manny Pacquiao won his the championship belt in his unprecedented 7th weight class. But Pacquiao is not only a boxer, he is also a humanitarian, and on Nov. 24, he will be honored for his humanitarianism in his home country of the Phillipeans, when he will be named a 2009 Gusi Peace Prize laureate. The world champion boxer is the award's only athlete among the elite group of 19 honorees from 16 different nations. Pacquiao is also a political force in his country, where he is running for congress.

Pacquiao is being honored for, among other things, braving the tumultuous conditions created by typhoons in the Philippines, where he has broken training to help save lives by delivering food into devastated areas.

Curtis Granderson of the Cleveland Indians was recently named MLB’s Man of the Year for his charitable work. Granderson established the "Grand Kids Foundation," a non-profit that focuses on improving opportunities for inner-city youth in the areas of education and youth baseball. He recently wrote a children's book entitled All You Can Be, which was illustrated by fourth-graders from across the state of Michigan that "encourages children to chase their dreams," and he is an active member of the Action Team national youth volunteer program, which is managed by the Major League Baseball Players Trust and Volunteers of America, and whose goal is to inspire and train the next generation of volunteers in more than 150 high schools across the U.S.

But these athletes don’t get the headlines that Tyson, Blount or Burress do; we are left thinking that boxers are thugs and that all football players are criminals.

What kind of example is this setting?

Yes, the athletes need to take responsibility and understand that they are role models, but the media must also understand this. Instead of focusing on Burress’s stupid decisions, we should publicize the generosity of Pacquiao or Granderson.

Pacquiao and Granderson’s stories are inspiring, and it is athletes like these who can make sports the great assembler that they can be. Sports can bring together people with little else in common, and athletes can encourage generosity in others.

On Monday, I read a story that began with me cringing, and ended with a satisfied smile, when the University of Tennessee turned an ugly situation into a good example for all student-athletes. Two of their star freshman football players were dismissed from the team after being charged in an attempted armed robbery (cringe). There is nothing the team could do about their crime, but instead of sitting on their hands and waiting for something to happen legally, Lane Kiffin – in a rare good move – dismissed them from the team, setting an example that all coaches should follow. It seems that the coaches at Tennessee understand that athletes are role models, and must behave as such.

Instead of focusing on athletes who make poor and sometimes criminal decisions, the media should focus on the positives of sports, those athletes and teams that rise above to succeed and inspire.

For the Love of Fantasy

(Ran 11/12 - Don't let the title excite you, it's nothing raunchy)

I am one of roughly 22 million Americans who take part in fantasy sports each season. I'll shout it from the rooftop - I love fantasy football!

Being in a fantasy football league has made me love, hate and respect my friends at a new level. I have learned that trash talking is an art form much like writing Haiku. It is as addictive as coffee and perfect for A.D.D. adults like myself. Now I can be in three leagues and burn some of that bottled energy.

I anticipate draft day, sifting through fantasy-specific magazines, reading every article by the Talented Mr. Roto, and getting everyone else’s expert opinion before preparing my own draft order.

I’m not alone. Last year, roughly $800 million worth of products and services were generated by the fantasy industry in 2008. And I’m also not alone in saying it’s worth every minute and every penny.

The great thing about fantasy football is that even if you are a fan of the Detroit Lions, Sundays can be fun if you’re in a fantasy league. Even if you have nothing to cheer for with your own team, you have individual players (and a defense) to cheer for in most games. It’s got to be the most genius aspect the NFL ever came up with – and they didn’t even think of it.

It cannot be overstated – it is necessary for professional football to be involved with the fantasy industry. In the NFL, unlike college, there are no real rivalries older than a few decades. But any person can draft a team and have a reason to watch every single game on TV. With rapid fantasy football leagues, the NFL will never - I repeat never - have a viewership problem.

Ten years ago you never saw all players who were "probable," "questionable" and "out" scrolling across the screen all Sunday morning on ESPN. That isn’t for the everyday fan to know who on their hometown team is out – it’s so fantasy owners know who to play in their weekly lineup.

What began in 1962 between a group of five men in Oakland has turned into a money-making machine beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Thanks in large part to fantasy, the NFL had overtaken MLB as the most popular sport in the U.S. Sure, people play fantasy baseball, but it’s so much more time-consuming, having to change your lineup every single day, and with less strategy than a 16-game football season.

Many people don’t understand the draw… I think the best way to describe it is that it allows me to have a real, tangible reason for checking scores and stats each week, aside from pure entertainment.

Maybe it can turn into an obsession, and can make us all a lot less productive at work… but it sure is fun.

Sports are what the doctor ordered

(Ran 11/5)

Sports are games - athletic competition that force us to test our limits. Sports aren’t life-or-death; they aren’t even that meaningful, really. But sometimes, things happen that cause sports to take on greater meaning. Sometimes, sports can be just what the metaphorical doctor ordered

Sports bring a smile to our faces, they bring together strangers, and they unite communities. In times of hardship, people often come together to cheer for an athlete or team. In sports, we can forget about our lives for a few hours, forget about the pain of our Soldiers being gone for a year, the debt we are in, or any of a number of other negative things that may be going on in our lives.
For two hours every Saturday or Sunday, we are taken to a different world, where red and black are the only acceptable colors, and all that matters is that the Bulldogs beat the Gators.

There are times when sports become more than just competition; they unite, they help us begin to heal, and, most importantly, they make us smile.

I just finished reading an article on about University of Miami walk-on wide receiver Chris Hayes, whose father committed suicide last October. Hayes had never even dressed for a game, but the Saturday following his father’s untimely death, the special teams coach told Hayes he was suiting up. And during the last play of the game, the 5’9" Hayes lined up as tight end against an All-American linebacker.

Hayes had no impact on that game; in fact, he has little impact on his team ever – in the win-loss column, anyway. But on that particular day, he showed his team made up of future NFLers what real heart is, and what sports really mean. Hayes didn’t have to show up to the game only days after burying his father. Quite frankly, most people probably didn’t expect him to. But for Hayes, I’d have to think that going to the game was a way to start the healing process. Through a game, Hayes showed the heart of a champion, and that sometimes sports can help us overcome immense pain.

Every year on ESPN, they have the Make-a-Wish series, where sick children fulfill their sports fantasies by spending the day with their favorite athlete or team. By the end of each of the three-minute segments, I am undoubtedly in tears and remembering why it is that I love sports so much. It’s because they can heal, even if it’s just for a moment.

There are small towns in America that have little to cheer for besides those games under the Friday night lights, when the entire community rallies around a group of 15-18 year old boys.
Even at the worst point in our lives, sports can pick us up; they give us something to look forward to, and something to cheer for. Whether it’s cheering up a kid who is battling illness, helping a man get over the loss of his father, or bringing together a down-and-out community, sports do mean something.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Regrets? There's insurance for that

(Ran 10/29)

It is a major topic of conversation after each college football season – who will stay in school, and who will leave school early to go into the NFL draft?

Last season, the three Heisman finalists were all underclassmen. All three quarterbacks, Oklahoma Sooner Sam Bradford, who won the trophy; Florida Gator Tim Tebow, the 2007 winner; and Texas Longhorn Colt McCoy; decided to return to college for at least another year.

But just to be safe, each took out an insurance policy, ranging from $1-5 million, in case of career-ending injury.

Sam Bradford's father, Kent, is an insurance specialist. Over the summer, the elder Bradford was quoted by ESPN having said, "The odds of a kid getting a career-ending injury are slim. But if it did happen, and you had the chance to insure, chances are you would feel pretty dumb. You're insuring earnings power."

In the case of his own son, that insurance policy may have been a smart decision. The Heisman Trophy winner injured his shoulder in the first game of the season. He sat out for four weeks, which ruined his chances for back-to-back Heisman trophies but certainly didn’t ruin his season. Then, in his second game back, Bradford re-injured his shoulder, and last week he opted to have season-ending surgery… and, ironically, to enter the NFL draft.

Players take a gamble when they decide to return to college for another season. Usually, they’re trying to increase their draft position; sometimes, they’re just making the decision to live like a kid for one more year, or they’re returning for the chance to win a National Championship.

In Bradford’s case, the gamble didn’t work in his favor. Had he left after his sophomore season, he was a consensus Top-5 pick; some even had him going first overall. He was coming off a season in which he was 328-of-483, throwing 4,720 pass yards and 50 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.

A year later, he could still go in the top-10, but that isn’t as likely of an outcome. Now there are questions about durability, due to the double-injury to his throwing shoulder, that weren’t there last season. No matter how good a player is, teams often second-guess, giving millions of dollars to a top-5 or top-10 pick who may have injury issues – just ask Michael Crabtree.

The insurance policies these players, who intend to play football for a living, take out are considered a "business expense." According to Sports Illustrated, using a private agent, a player can expect to pay $9,000-$10,000 per $1 million of coverage, depending on where the player buys his policy and how much protection he needs. With these insurance policies, like any kind of insurance, you are paying for protection in the off-chance that you may need it. Most players won’t use it, just like most people don’t use their flood insurance, but having it for that 1 percent of the time when it is needed sure does pay off in the end.

Sure, a large part of Sam Bradford’s injury this season was a much weaker offensive line, but a lot of it was just plain-old bad luck. That’s what an insurance policy is for.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Type-casting teams

It's been FAR too long, but I think I have a great excuse this time... my little girl who was born June 24. All is well with her and I, and I'm back to writing a sports column each week, so I'll keep y'all updated as I do so.


Type-casting teams (ran 10/22)

In life, there are the blessed, the cursed, the lazy and the hard-working.

It is the same in sports.

There are those teams blessed with talent – the teams that can do no wrong; then, on the opposite side, there is the team that can do no right – the blooper never drops in, the hole in the defense never opens.

Some can overcome lack of talent or a lower payroll with a four letter word: T-E-A-M. When a group of athletes plays together as one cohesive unit, there is no limit to the heights they can achieve.

There are those teams that exceed our expectations (this year’s Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings), and those teams that have all of the talent in the world, but can’t do anything with it (I'm talking to you, Tennessee Titans).

After Sunday’s NFL games, I’d like to discuss three kinds of teams: The lucky, the loveable losers, and the underachievers.

Type one: the lucky

Luck-y – adjective. Having or marked by good luck; fortunate.

If you watched the Vikings game yesterday, "luck" is probably one of the first words that came to mind.

It seemed like Minnesota had the game wrapped up, but then Baltimore made a 17-point comeback. With two seconds left in the game, Ravens’ kicker Steven Hauschka lined up for a 44-yard field goal… and it sailed left to give the Vikes the win.

If you play for a lucky team, you always recover the clutch fumble, or the other team’s kicked always misses the game-winning field goal.

So far this year Minnesota, despite having a hasn’t-even-hit-his-prime Adrian Peterson and at-the-top-of-his-career Jared Allen, has relied heavily on luck. Even the fact that a 40-year-old Brett Favre is playing as well as he is seems lucky for the Vikings.

Type two: the lovable losers

Los-er – noun. A person, team, thing, etc., that loses.

Every person loves their team, but sometimes they just don’t have "it."

They’re like the Bad News Bears, or the 2009 St. Louis Rams – no matter what they do, they just can’t win.

They don’t really have the talent, and they don’t have the necessary experience, or they have "too much" experience (i.e. old guys), and those three things put together add up to an oh-and-whatever season.

But sometimes, for the team that you thought was the lovable losers, it finally comes together: the defense starts blocking, players start making hits, and holes start opening for the runners. Then, suddenly, they aren’t the lovable losers, but the overachievers. That’s when it’s fun.

Unfortunately, St. Louis fans, I don’t see that happening for your guys this season. Sorry.

Type three: the underachievers

Un-der-a-cheive-er – noun. A person or thing that performers below expectations.

The worst of all of the teams - the underachieving team has all of the talent in the world, but can’t seem to get it together.

This team has the all-star lineup, the high payroll; maybe they had a great season last year. But when it comes to playing as a team … well, let’s just say that, sometimes, there is an ‘I’ in team - but it’s not a very good team.

This is the team that, after a loss, can’t believe they were beaten by a team that seemed inferior.
The best example of this is the Tennessee Titans.

Last year they were 12-0 at one point. They have most everyone back (minus Albert Haynesworth), LenDale White came back looking like a real tailback and not a regular at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Chris Johnson is playing great football, but they just can’t seem to put it together this season.

Sunday, they put up a big ol' goose egg on the scoreboard, gave up 59 points to New England. It was pathetic to watch, and there is nothing I hate more than a team who gives up.

Everyone thought Tennessee would be good – very good even – but instead, they are essentially out of any playoff contention, and need to go back to the drawing board for next season, mainly finding out who the real Vince Young is (let’s hope it’s the 2007 version, and not 2008), and maybe even re-evaluating the future of Jeff Fisher.

But no matter what type your team is, lucky, loveable losers, underachieving, unstoppable, or just plain bad, keep rooting them on, because the only thing worse than a bad team is a fair-weather fan.