Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Manziel Controversy Brings Other Issues to Light

            The recent controversy surrounding Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel and his alleged autograph-signing “business” has sparked a few interesting discussions. The first, and most obvious, concerns the redshirt freshman’s eligibility heading into the season. We are roughly two weeks away from the Aggies’ season opener and yet we still don’t have an answer from the NCAA. If nothing changes between now and August 31, it will be the Texas A&M coaching staff with the toughest decision to make: to play or not to play Johnny Football.
            In theory, the NCAA could carry their investigation into the season and perhaps beyond and still, down the road, find Manziel guilty of breaking the rules. In this case, A&M would be forced to retroactively forfeit every game in which Manziel participated. In playing Manziel before a decision has been made, this is the risk coach Kevin Sumlin and company must take.
            Whether Manziel signed autographs or not, I don’t think the NCAA will get anything to stick in the end. But if the aforementioned scenario does play out, and the NCAA fails to conclude its investigation before the start of the season, I’m playing Johnny Manziel anyway. Without Manziel, the Aggies are roughly a 6-6 football team. With him, they are title contenders. If I’m Sumlin, I’m playing Manziel and keeping my fingers crossed. If we have a great season and nothing comes of the investigation, that’s awesome. If we play our star, win an SEC title, and then discover he’s guilty and every win must be forfeited, I still have the memories of a historic championship run, which I find preferable to an average, bowl-less season that saw Johnny Football ride the bench.  
            Of course, the autograph-signing issue surrounding Manziel has also reignited the pay-for-play issue, specifically as it relates to college football. I’ll start by briefly admitting I don’t think the average college football player deserves compensation. If you have hopes of playing in the NFL – and most players worthy of compensation do – college football is your farm system, the method by which you get ready for the league. With that in mind, name me a farm system that takes better care of its athletes. From the college experience, to free education, boarding, food and clothes…the college athlete’s life is better than most. Not to mention very few players actually create revenue; sure, Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel were/are moneymakers, but for the most part it’s the college football structure that makes money, not the individual players. When one man goes down or moves on, another one takes his place. Again, it’s the structure, not the player that brings in the bills.
            More importantly, though, people are asking themselves the wrong question. It’s not as much about whether college athletes deserve to get paid, as it as about whether doing so is even close to feasible. And, then, if it is in fact feasible, you must ask yourself if the ramifications of doing so hurt the game to an acceptable extent.
            First, you should know that from 2006-2011, only 79 college athletic programs made a profit, according to USAToday Sports. Of course, some of these programs made WAY more than others. For example, Florida and Alabama made roughly $24 million during said period. In contrast, Georgia made considerably less at just about $12 million, while Auburn was in the green by less than $4 million. Worse yet, traditional football schools like Arizona State, FSU, Georgia Tech and West Virginia actually lost money during the same stretch.
            So, knowing what we do now, it’s obvious that some schools would be able to afford athlete compensation while others wouldn’t. From a feasibility standpoint, schools like Tech and FSU just wouldn’t be able to cut it, at least not without cutting other sports. As a result, college football would have to again reformat, this time with a BCS Classification that would only include roughly 40 to 50 teams. And say goodbye to the Seminoles, Yellow Jackets and Mountaineers.
After that, we’d have to determine exactly how we want to compensate the players at the top 40 or 50 schools. Would schools be allowed to pay according to what they can afford, or would every school pay its players the same amount? To me, it’s obvious that, under this model, there would have to be a uniform pay rate. If, instead, you allowed schools to pay according to what they make, schools like Florida, Alabama, Texas and Michigan would land every top player seeking to make a profit. Parity in the sport would be gone. Of course, if all schools paid their players the same amount, the schools that make less will then be forced to spend a much larger percentage of their budget when compared to those which make more. The arms race would become even more lopsided than it already is. But even after you arrive at a number, a salary cap if you will, you must then determine how each team goes about compensating their own players. For example, would the Texas A&M center (Mike Matthews) make as much as Johnny Manziel?
The entire pay-for-play issue stems from the notion that college football players create revenue and therefore should be justly compensated. From that premise, then, can you honestly rationalize paying a guy you’ve never heard of the same amount as the Heisman Trophy winner? And what would the third-string left tackle make? Of course, if you start paying players based on performance, you open up a completely different can of worms. Would you pay recruits, or perhaps just those who are currently active? You can’t really pay recruits, and for a number of reasons. Doing so would turn high school athletes into virtual free agents, commodities searching for the highest bidder, while regulating under-the-table compensation would become increasingly difficult. Wit that said, if you pay only active players, you’d then have to decide if contracts are binding, negotiated yearly, subject to change according to health and so on? If a school has three top receivers, would the coaches pay all three according to production, or choose to give WR No. 3’s money to the offensive line? Would schools be forced to promise recruits money down the line? And do you really want 18-year-old kids making college declarations and life decisions based solely on money?
What’s clear, no matter how you do it, is that college football would suddenly have more in common with pro sports than any other college sport. No matter how compensation would go down, a new class structure would develop, the distance between the haves and the have-nots would only grow, and numerous top programs would fall by the wayside. The college game as we know and love it would cease to exist. Cap management and keeping entitled and “underpaid” players happy would suddenly become paramount. Is that really what you want? Is that really better than what we have?
The truth is, the NFL is preventing the most worthy athletes from making money, not the NCAA. It’s the NFL that dictates kids must be at least three years removed from high school before entering the league. As a result, college football has taken on the task of grooming the country’s top football players, getting the best ready for the next level, and providing a free education as simply a throw in. And until there’s an alternative to college ball, another and more lucrative route to the NFL, the NCAA and its teams will continue pocketing any and all revenue. To them, and to me, it simply isn’t worth ruining the product just to make Mike Mathews happy.
OK, that’s all the captivating insight I’ve got for now, but if you’re interested in doing so, you're more than welcome to follow me on Twitter @BrainTrain9. Until next time…stay cool and keep reading…

Friday, August 2, 2013

News and Notes: Percy, Cooper, Tiger and More

During this ultra-slow time in sports, we aren’t left with much. As injury news and racial slurs (Riley Cooper) dominate our headlines, college and pro football can’t come soon enough. I do, however, have a couple of thoughts on some of the aforementioned topics:

-I’ve never been quiet about my allegiance to the University of Florida. I follow the football program about as closely as one man can, so trust me when I say Percy Harvin’s recent hip injury could actually serve as a blessing in disguise for the Seattle Seahawks (until now, when I unmask it). For as dynamic and valuable as Percy’s always been, the guy has forever had major durability issues. He struggled to stay consistently healthy during his time in Gainesville and he’s continued to deal with nagging injuries and migraine issues since then, too…Percy’s appeared in all 16 games in a season only once. The assumption I’m making here is that Percy’s hip surgery will keep him out, but not for the entire season, and if I’m a Seattle fan, I’d rather lose him early than late. A fresh Percy in Week 12 and beyond is exactly what the Seahwaks need to win a Super Bowl…it’s also something I don’t believe is be possible if Percy’s healthy and active during Week 1.

-Sticking with former Gators, I hated to see Riley Cooper making headlines this week for a less-than-positive reason. The word he used should not be used by anyone, blacks included (I’ll come back to this). Even worse, when you consider the hurtful intent with which he used the racial slur, the incident looks all the more damning. Still, I say I hated to see Cooper make the wrong type of headlines not because he’s a Gator, but because from what I’ve observed (from the outside) over the years he’s actually a pretty good guy. He’s played and been friends with black football and baseball players his entire life, comes from a healthy home, and has always been among the most popular athletes on his teams. Considering the above, I very seriously doubt Riley Cooper is a racist, and I truly believe he deserves a second chance. Those calling for his job in Philly need to hit the breaks. Remember, the Eagles currently employ Michael Vick, a black football player who has not only publically forgiven Riley, but also one who is currently taking advantage of a second chance he received. To an extent, I defended Vick during his notorious controversy, just as I’m defending Cooper now. Of course, what Cooper said was regrettable. In fact, it was more than that: it was stupid, it was disgusting, it was filled with hate. But don’t forget, when alcohol and confrontation are thrown into the equation, people don’t always represent their best selves. And if we can trust words at all these days, Riley’s apology was as sincere and heartfelt as they come. In fact, I believe this incident has hurt and embarrassed Cooper as much as anyone (Of course, unlike others, his pain is self inflicted). We should also take this moment to consider the extent to which some members of the black community – many of Cooper’s teammates included – have normalized the word. I wrote above that no one should use the word, blacks included, not because they don’t have the right, but because it perpetuates a damaging message: that context here matters, and that using the word can at times be OK. I’m part of the Jewish community, one that knows a negative stereotype or two. And sometimes within that community, there’s a sense that Jews themselves can employ these stereotypes, precisely BECAUSE they are Jewish. I, however, have never agreed with this approach. If I even jokingly reference Jewish stereotypes, it tells others, non-Jews included, that using them in the right setting isn’t really that bad, when in fact doing so can have an extremely dangerous impact down the line. Likewise, when blacks use the “N” word in daily language, it keeps the word alive, works to blunt its historically harsh significance, and sends all sorts of harmful messages to outsiders everywhere.  If Cooper’s mistake is to teach us anything, it’s that certain words are just too hurtful to mess around with.

-Moving on to a lighter note, the PGA Championship starts next week, which means the golfing world will once again be watching to see if Tiger Woods can add to his Majors count. Speaking of Tiger, Justin Hanover and I discussed the all-time great on 790 radio last weekend and I made what I think is a pretty interesting comparison. In a way, Tiger’s career arc reminds me a bit Mike Tyson’s. In his prime, Tyson was dominant in the ring. He was so scary, in fact, that Tyson often won fights before they even started. The intimidation factor during his prime was huge, that is until he lost to Buster Douglas. From then on, after the world saw he was destructible, it was all downhill...the edge was gone. In the same way, when Woods was at his best, he had a certain aura about him. Sure, Tiger’s golf game was the best, but golfers themselves have also admitted they truly feared him. No one wanted to be paired with the guy, and few believed they could actually beat him when it counted most. But with marital issues in 2009 and numerous injuries since, Tiger, too, has lost his edge. And while he’s currently ranked No. 1 in the world, he hasn’t won another major since the ’09 fiasco and often appears tense on the biggest stages, in the most demanding moments (when he was formerly the best).  Like Tyson, Tiger no longer intimidates before the whistle, and it’s hurt his game after it.  

-Charlie Strong and Louisville finished off last season with a bang, embarrassing Florida in the Sugar Bowl. With that and the team’s soft schedule in mind, many have predicted a monster season for the Cardinals, with words like “undefeated” getting tossed around. Well Strong’s team got even stronger this week when former Auburn RB, and National Champion, Michael Dyer joined the fray. The 22-year-old Dyer has had his off-field issues, and took a unique route to Louisville, but no one can question his skill with the ball in his hands, rushing for 1,242 yards in 2011. Louisville already has two nice options at RB – Senorise Perry and Dominique Brown – but Dyer is a difference maker and will certainly make this year’s Cardinals even tougher to deal with. 

-Finally, despite few headlines, Joe Dumars has quietly had himself a nice summer in Detroit. The team drafted Georgia SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, signed Josh Smith for reasonable money, and traded for PG Brandon Jennings earlier in the week. Of course, the Pistons aren’t title contenders just yet, but a franchise that was recently among the least relevant in the NBA now seems to be on the rise. A future starting five that includes Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe (though he’s set to become a free agent in 2014), Josh Smith, KCP and Brandon Jennings at least now deserves our attention.

OK, that’s all the captivating insight I’ve got for now, but if you’re interested in doing so, you're more than welcome to follow me on Twitter @BrainTrain9. Until next time…stay cool and keep reading…

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You’ve Got To Puig Kidding Me…And More

It takes an awful lot to get me heated about baseball. The arbitrary one-game playoff that Bud Selig concocted in 2012 did it just fine. You know, the rule that eliminated a 94-win Braves team from postseason contention after just nine innings of baseball.  The idea, from the start, had little merit, but was created anyway in the name of adding excitement to a sport in desperate need of it. Now, though, many in baseball have abandoned this search for intrigue in an effort to keep Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig out of July’s All-Star game. Of course, I’m once again heated.
            The argument against the 22-year-old right fielder is that he has only appeared in 27 games, a relatively short stint when you consider his team had played 82 heading into Wednesday. Even still, it’s hard for anyone to argue the kid’s value. In the aforementioned 27 contests, Puig has an amazing 47 hits. In the history of major league baseball, only Joe Dimaggio has been as prolific, with 50 hits during the same span. Puig also has eight homers during his historic run in the big leagues, which is good enough for another Dodgers record. I should also mention that LA is 39-43 on the year, but 16-11 since Puig joined the team, winning nine of its last 10 outings. And, oh by the way, the Cuban product also has 17 RBI while also hitting a red-hot .443. Simply put, he’s presently the best and most valuable player in the sport.
            Obvious value and contributions aside, though, and the argument for Puig’s All-Star status remains just as strong. The annual game exists as a form of entertainment, most notably for baseball’s fans. If the question wasn’t about what he's earned, but instead centered around who the fans want to see, Yasiel Puig would be a lock to make the game. And I was under the impression that at least here the fans do matter most? In fact, the game is apparently so much about the fans that baseball has a mandate stipulating that each team gets a player, even if some miserable teams have no one deserving. Of course, this rule is in place in an effort to embrace the fans of even baseball’s worst teams because, after all, the game is all about entertaining those who support the sport. You can’t, then, tell me that the 30-win Miami Marlins deserve an All-Star in the name of entertainment, but Yasiel Puig doesn’t belong. You can’t create a one-game playoff out of nowhere all in the name of captivating your audience and then turn around and tell the same group of people that baseball’s most exciting player, the future of the sport, isn’t even an All-Star. If the game is indeed about putting on a show to celebrate baseball and those who love it, Yaisel Puig is as All-Star worthy as any player out there.
Deciding on Dwight…
            Quickly, I’d like to close with a little something on Dwight Howard. The Atlanta native and free agent center met with the Hawks on Monday, and is reportedly considering a move to Atlanta along with ones to Dallas, Houston and Golden State. Of course, he may also stay in LA, though I’ve said that won’t happen since the day Orlando decided to move the then disgruntled superstar.
            Anyway, with Dwight on the mind, I’ve received a bunch of texts and phone calls recently from Hawks fans during my weekend radio shifts and many have said they don’t want Howard in Atlanta. I’d be lying if I said  these texts and calls don’t have me baffled.
Not only is Dwight by far the best center in a league devoid of centers (which even greater accentuates his value), but it’s not like the Hawks are in a position to be overly selective. The team presently has just three players on its roster, and for the most part no real All-Star (Al Horford has just two All-Star appearances). And even with a treasure chest of money to throw at free agents, Atlanta remains an unpopular destination for elite players. I know Dwight has his shortcomings, mostly upstairs in that childish brain of his, but that same immature center led an Orlando Magic starting five that included Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee all the way to the NBA Finals. In short, Hawks fans are grossly underestimating Dwight’s value and equally overestimating their city’s appeal. Beggars can’t be choosers. In a huge way, Dwight would make Atlanta basketball relevant again…this city would be more than lucky to have him.
OK, that’s all I’ve got for now, but if you’re interested in doing so, you're more than welcome follow me on Twitter @BrainTrain9.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Considering the Draft: Winners, Losers, The Hawks and more

So, the 2013 NBA Draft is now in the books, and it was certainly one of the more exciting ones in recent memory. The numerous surprises at the top combined with multiple significant trades allowed for seamless coverage that kept the discussion focused mostly on what matters. In fact, as much as I love the NFL Draft, league officials should take a lesson from the NBA, which allots teams five minutes to make their moves rather than the far-too-long 10 minutes given to NFL teams. I should also mention that I thought Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons did a quality job. I’ve never been a Simmons fan, but he was at his best last night in that particular setting, when he wasn’t asked to break down basketball on the fly.
            Anyway, as always, there were some winners and losers on the night, and I’ve done my best to thoughtfully address most of them below.

Atlanta: Let’s start with the team closest to home, your beloved Hawks. I should start by saying they did about as much as they could, save moving Al Horford for something more substantial. In staying put, though, Atlanta managed to get at least one, and possibly two promising prospects. I’ll begin with German PG Dennis Schroeder, who I think has the chance to be really good sometime in the relatively near future. The 19-year-old not only plays a position at which the Hawks are weak (assuming Danny Ferry lets Jeff Teague walk), but he was also the best talent available at No. 17. Simply put, the kid has tremendous potential, combining excellent size and athleticism with a quality shot and great feel for the game. Schroader gets to the hoop with frequency, creates for others willingly, and has the ability to play stingy defense when he wants. He’s young, and is said to have some issues with work ethic and immaturity, but with little else available at the time, I give Atlanta credit for grabbing a guy that can be an impact player down the road. Of course, the team also traded its second pick for Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira, who originally went to Boston with the 16th selection in the first round. Like Schroeder, Nogueira is young, raw and may be a few years away from contributing. At first glance, though, you have to like his size (7-0, 220) and athleticism (runs the floor extremely well), as well as his potential to become a game-changing shot blocker. But Like many young bigs, Nogueira lacks offensive polish, knowledge of the game, and necessary weight. And, unlike Schroeder, I’m not sure the Brazilian will ever have a real shot at becoming a star. When you consider, then, that Atlanta gave up a top prospect in Shane Larkin (the guy the Hawks originally took at No. 18) to get Nogueira, I’m a bit less impressed. With that said, it was still a positive draft for Atlanta, even if it’s not one that will help the team in the season to come.

Orlando: When Anthony Bennett of UNLV went to Cleveland with the first overall pick, it meant the Magic essentially moved into that No. 1 spot (Orlando had about five guys on its radar, none of whom were AB). Still, the Magic didn’t flinch, refusing to bite on Nerlens Noel (the guy everyone assumed they wanted but wouldn’t have the chance to get) and instead opting for Victor Oladipo, the player the team apparently had atop its board the entire time. It’s a good thing, too, because Oladipo is considered by just about everyone to be the safest pick in the draft, a player with unique defensive talents in addition to considerable offensive upside. Additionally, Oladipo is the type of smart, committed, hard working kid around which the Magic hope to build. With Oladipo, Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Andrew Nicholson forming a young Orlando nucleus, the Magic are a solid example of why getting bad (sported 2012’s worst record after blowing things up by getting rid of Dwight) in an effort to get good isn’t always so awful.

Philadelphia: The Sixers had perhaps the strongest night of any team in the league, turning PG Jrue Holiday into C Nerlens Noel, PG Michael Carter-Williams and New Orleans’ first round pick in the loaded 2014 Draft (1-5 protected). Sure, Holiday was an all-star at one of the game’s most important positions, but Philly is undeniably in rebuild mode and Holiday couldn’t effectively be a part of that plan. So, instead of keeping him, they moved the young star and in return got excellent prospects at the 5 and 1, plus a likely lottery pick next season. Also, Holiday would have made the Sixers a playoff team this coming season, which clearly wouldn’t have aided them in the rebuild process, either. Instead, Philly managed to get two promising prospects and a top pick next year while staying bad enough to ensure their 2014 pick falls within the lottery as well. Add it all up, and Philly essentially received four top prospects for Jrue Holiday. Not too shabby for a team that had little hope heading into the night.

Minnesota: The Timberwolves had a great night, turning the No. 9 pick, Trey Burke, into UCLA SG Shabazz Muhammad and National Champion C Gorgui Dieng. People can knock Muhammad all they want, but the guy can flat out score, and still has room to improve. Don’t forget, he was the No. 1 recruit in all of America just one short year ago and, while recruiting services have been known to get things wrong, there’s still plenty to like about the former Bruin’s game. Not to mention he will have the perfect running mate in Ricky Rubio, a guy who doesn’t score much but excels at finding those who do (cough, cough…Shabazz Muhammad). Add to Muhammad Louisville center Gorgui Dieng – a guy who rebounds a ton, defends the rim and hits the open jumper – and Minnesota received two valuable assets in exchange for a PG, something the Wolves already have.

Others: There are a few other teams that didn’t necessarily move the meter, but did well where they sat. If I’m Detroit, I’m not giving up on Brandon Knight at the PG spot just yet, and am super excited about pairing him with a dynamic athlete/shooter in Kentavius Caldwell-Pope; Oklahoma City can no longer count on Kendrick Perkins at the five, and needs post scoring in the worst kind of way, so taking a swing-for-the-fences type approach with 7-footer Steven Adams made tons of sense; It didn’t take much thought, but Sacramento should at least be recognized for getting perhaps the most talented player in the draft when Ben McLemore fell in its lap at No. 7; Dallas managed to trade back, cut cap space and still get a PG that can flat out light it up in Miami’s Shane Larkin; And Utah traded up to get its PG of the future – Trey Burke – while also stashing away a center with big upside in Rudy Gobert.

Cleveland: This pick confused me on a number of levels. First, I should point out that Anthony Bennett is 20 years old and reportedly weighs approximately 260 pounds at 6-8. I’m not saying he weighs too much to play in the NBA, but I am saying he weighs WAY too much to play the three spot. Assuming, then, that he will end up at power forward, I should next point out that Cleveland already has Tristan Thompson, a young power forward they drafted with the fourth overall pick just two years ago. Perhaps the Cavs think Thompson can guard opposing threes while Bennett mans the spot on offense, but I just don’t see that happening, which it makes it difficult to envision these guys productively playing together. I get taking the best available player, but I have a hard time accepting a team that chooses to duplicate talent with the first overall pick, especially when doing so makes little strategic sense. What do I mean by that? Well consider that virtually no one else considered Anthony Bennett the top prospect available. Of course, that means even if Cleveland did (and it did), the Cavs could have traded back and still landed their guy. So not only did Cleveland draft a guy to play a position they already have filled, but they did so about three or four spots too high. Yuck.

Phoenix: Not only am I not sold on Maryland C Alex Len, the guy they chose with the fifth overall pick, but I also think the Suns made a huge mistake in passing on Nerlens Noel. Noel was a difference maker when he was healthy at Kentucky, and has boatloads of room for growth. Len, on the other hand, didn’t make first, second or third team All-ACC in 2013, averaging just 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds during his second season in college. Again, Noel was more productive at a younger age and with less experience, and also is the better athlete with more room for growth.

Charlotte: For similar reasons, I didn’t like Charlotte’s selection of Cody Zeller with the fourth pick. I think Zeller offers more certainty, but less upside than the aforementioned Len, but he is neither as safe nor as promising as Noel, and Ben McLemore was available when Charlotte picked, too. In other words, the Bobcats could have gone in multiple better directions than the one they chose. But, hey, that’s Michael Jordan for ya.

Portland: The Trail Blazers went with Lehigh’s CJ McCollum when they picked at No. 10. To me, this pick is interesting on a few levels. First, McCollum is mostly a PG, which Portland already has in Damian Lillard. You have to wonder, then, which player they will move to SG. With that said, McCollum is a scoring savant and should team up with Lillard in quite exciting fashion. Again, I’m not sure exactly how they will fit together, but they certainly give Portland loads of talent in the backcourt for years to come.

Boston/Broolyn: If you don’t alrady know, Boston continued its transition to rebuild mode Thursday night, trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for three first-round picks, Kris Humphries (expiring deal), Gerald Wallace, MarShone Brooks and more. Though Wallace brings with him a rather large contract, Boston managed to create some cap space and begin starting over. What’s more interesting, however, is Brooklyn’s side of things. Sure, the Nets took on a ton in salaries and didn’t get any younger, but Brooklyn has winning now in mind, even with a first-year head coach – Jason Kidd – roaming the sidelines. Criticize the Nets all you want, but they will open the season with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez in the starting five. Is that a title-winning lineup? Maybe not. But, in the sometimes-unpredictable NBA, it certainly gives the Nets a fighting chance (this team looks every bit as strong as San Antonio did heading into 2013, or as Dallas did prior to its championship run three years ago).

OK, that’s all I’ve got for now, but if you’re interested in doing so, you're more than welcome to follow me on Twitter @BrainTrain9.