Stop Voting Players into the Hall of Fame Based Solely on Number of Championships

It’s been awhile.  ’nuff said.

I was reading a post on another sports site (not the one I hated on earlier) about Tom Coughlin recognizing that he had made a mistake in criticizing the ref for ruling that Victor Cruz had fumbled, leading to a ‘Boys touchdow,n when Coughlin believed (or, at least, claimed) that the play should have been dead due to Cruz’s lack of forward progress.  To his credit, Coughlin admitted that, upon seeing the video, he was wrong (though he couched it in the weasel words of a “misunderstanding from what I felt”).  But this post isn’t about Coughlin or the pitiful Giants, per se.

In the comments to this post, someone made the following comment:

                 kev86 says:Nov 27, 2013 7:32 PM

                 Coughlin for Canton. One of the best.

Remembering that this man is the head coach of a team that lost 6 straight games (including a 38-0 drubbing by the resurgent Panthers) and who, prior to the Giants winning their first Superbowl, was widely thought to be on the way out, I went to check Coughlin’s career record, to see if I was missing something or, perhaps, just reading too much into the notoriously fickle New York media.  Here’s what I found:

Regular Season: 155-128-0 .548

Playoffs: 11-7  .611   2 Superbowls

Putting aside the 2 Superbowls, Couglin is an above-average but not great coach.  He is also overseeing a season where the Giants feature a porous defense, a QB regressing to his interception-laden form, a terrible running game.  And this person thinks Coughlin should be in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Because, presumably, he was a part of two Superbowl-winning teams.

Now, I am not going to be that guy who suggests that we should ignore championships and look only at the (advanced) stats.  If a team wins numerous championships, it stands to reason that they are doing at least something right and, the way I see it, the Hall of Fame is intended to honour those players who exemplify the way sports should be played.  Maybe Player X didn’t score the most goals or throw for the most yards, but not every player can be an offensive star.  A reliable defenceman in hockey, a stalwart centre in football, a shortstop with great range or a defensive midfielder in soccer may not have gaudy stats to show for their work, but that does not mean that that they are not great at playing their position or, even, among the greatest athletes in their sports.

That said, the primary consideration in determining who was, in fact, the Best should focus largely on statistics.  The reason for this is obvious (to me, at least): since championships are won and lost by teams and often rely on a great deal of luck (see Giants, New York), we need a way to determine whether players are beneficial or detrimental to their teams.  During the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP debates, one of the points raised, and a terrible one to my mind, was that Miggy should (and did) win because he led his team to the playoffs and Trout’s Angels missed the post-season both years by a mile.  This is a poor argument for several reasons:

1) The playoffs in baseball are the hardest to get into (of sports with a proper playoff system);

2) At best, Cabrera and Trout represent slightly over 1/9th of their teams’ at-bats and are only involved in a minority of their teams’ defensive plays (where, it is worth noting, Trout vastly outperformed Cabrera); and

3) Many of Cabrera’s teammates (such as Max Scherzer and Torii Hunter) put up great stats whereas many of Trout’s high-profile teammates (such as Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton) grossly underperformed, each hitting under .260

While it would be foolish to ignore the fact that some players make their teammates better, or that some players develop a chemistry (or otherwise complement each other) that collectively improves their performances, an outstanding performance, even extended over a full season or full career, is not enough by itself to win a championship.

Consider Barry Sanders: he played on one of the perennially worst teams in football yet, in spite of that, was perhaps the greatest running back to ever play the game (though both Walter Payton and Jim Brown have legitimate cases as well).  Sanders was often forced to run through players, as his offensive line frequently broke down, leaving Sanders to power through defensive players on his own.  Similarly, Warren Moon, Ted Williams, John Stockton/Karl Malone, Marcel Dionne and Dan Marino are all among the greatest players in their sports, yet none of them have hoisted championship hardware (though admittedly all of these players are, to my knowledge, in their respective HOF’s).

My issue is that there often is a desire by HOF voters to see average players who played on dynasty (or, even, on moderately successful teams) enshrined despite the fact that they are not statistically, or in many cases, even qualitatively, the very best at their positions.  Consider, for example, Phil Rizzuto. who won 5 rings with the Yankees.  While a fine shortstop, he was hardly the catalyst for his teams success and far from the best shortstop, even of his era.  So why is he in the Hall?  Three main reasons come to mind (and I am a Rizzuto fan, it bears noting):

1) He was a well-known announcer;

2) He played for a Big Time Franchise; and

3) He was a part of 5 championships.

Think of who some of his far-more-deserving teammates were: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Allie Reynolds.  Can it truly be said that the Yankees’ success was somehow driven primarily by Rizzuto, even if his “intangibles” are factored in?  That said, having an entire handful of rings is seen by many to be the key to the castle that is the HOF.

Perhaps the worst example of this occurs in football.  Joe Namath has some of the worst stats of a QB in Canton but, hey, he promised a Championship and won one.  Bob Griese, Lynn Swann, Paul Hornung all have marginal stats, but are in the HOF largely due to their involvement is high-profile Championship-winning teams.  There seems to be a lot of hype being raised around players who played for the 49ers in the 80s and the Cowboys in the 90s.  Would Terrell Davis, with only 7 years of stats, albeit fantastic ones for many of those years, even be in the discussion if he hadn’t scored a pair of rings with the Denver Elways in the 90s?  Roger Craig might have a better case, being (as some have called him) the “original Marshall Faulk”, but the first fact everyone cites after Craig’s 1000/1000 season is his 3 Superbowl wins.  Phil Simms has better numbers in almost all categories (a few more picks and a lower completion percentage, but more yards, TDs and wins with fewer losses in fewer games) than Troy Aikman, but Aikman got in much sooner because was part of “America’s Team”‘s 3 SB’s in the 90’s while Phil Simms has only one rings (though he set the table for Jeff Hostetler to win Superbowl XXV by going 11-2 then getting hurt).  And I frequently read articles by people flabbergasted over how there aren’t more players from the 70s-80s Raiders/85 Bears/80s 49ers/90s Cowboys/late-90s Broncos in the Hall (the reason there isn’t outrage, yet, from New England and St. Louis fans over their 2000s teams is that not enough time has passed for the anger to foment properly, though I look forward to earnest discussion about the injustice of Ricky Proehl not having his bust alongside Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk et al.).

In Canada, there was a similar discussion about whether Paul Henderson, hero of the 1972 Summit Series for Canada, should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Quite simply, the answer is no, though he should certainly be part of the ’72 Series exhibit in the Hall.  His numbers aren’t good enough – not even close – but because of his association with that one series (heck, that one goal), people are inclined to overvalue his total career, even though that necessarily means excluding, at least temporarily, a more deserving candidate.  Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates has a similar-ish story, in that his HOF candidacy is due in large part to his involvement with the Pirates’ 1960 World Series, hitting the first ever walk-off Series-winning home run.  Certainly the Baseball Hall of Fame would be well-served by including a display recognizing these iconic homeruns, as well as say Kirk Gibson’s and Bobby Thompson’s legendary shots, in that they are part of the game and Cooperstown already keeps memorabilia from memorable events on display.  But people keep beating the drum for, say, Jack Morris, whose regular season numbers are quite poor, even in his time, but who has three rings to his credit, Tim Raines, easily the second-best base stealer in the 80s and 90s after (admittedly by some distance) Rickey Henderson, gets far less love, since he isn’t sporting the same hardware.

Enough ranting.  The point is, stupid comment poster, that mediocre coaches and mediocre players who happen to be associated with winning teams, even multiple championship-winning teams, don’t belong in their sports’ Halls of Fame.  Why?  Because these mediocre coaches and players already have their names in the record books and rings to show for their accomplishments.  The Hall of Fame is to recognize the best players to ever play the game, some of whom won multiple championships, some of whom played on perennial losing teams.  If the New York Giants want to put Tom Coughlin or Phil Simms or, for that matter, David Tyree in their Hall of Fame (or Ring of Honour or what-have-you), fine.  Winning a championship is the pinnacle of success for a team; for the League, a championship is won every year.  Filling the Halls with marginal players who had the fortune to be part of a championship team or several diminishes the accomplishments of the truly great players who excelled at their positions and at their sport.  Coaches and players should have to measure up to the HOF, despite the desire of many to turn the HOF into a shrine to their favourite teams’ best moments.  Personally, the Hall of Average Players Who Happened to Be on a Couple of Championship Teams sounds like a pretty crappy place to me.  Then again, some people, like kev38, might disagree.

Sorry, Boston: You Aren’t the Sympathetic Underdogs You Are Made Out to Be

Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox for winning their third World Series in the past decade.  That said, there seems to be this notion that the Red Sox, who have recently won 2 World Series and who rocked a $150 million payroll are somehow the lovable underdogs, receiving the same sort of treatment given to teams like the Tampa Bay Rays or the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Consider how much discussion was made of how the Boston Red Sox had not won a World Series at home in 95 years.  Frankly, so what?  I get that it is a big deal to the fans to see their team win a championship at home, I fail to see why it is somehow more meaningful for their fans, who have enjoyed their team winning the WS twice in recent history, than for other teams whose fans haven’t enjoyed seeing their team win a World Series, at home or on the road.  The Chicago Cubs, who have eclipsed a century of futility, would probably happily take a win on the road.

Similarly, much of the emphasis on the Red Sox’s “redemption” story is on their reduced payroll, down from $175 million to $155 million.  Yes, they got rid of some terrible contracts, like Adrian Gonzalez’s deal, but their payroll was still more than $45 million more than average payrolls, making it still one of the highest payroll teams in the MLB.  Their payroll dwarfs that of the vast majority of teams, including $35 million more than their WS opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals (who have also recently won multiple championships, making them hardly underdogs themselves).  The average Red Sox (Red Sock?) earns about $5 million, more than twice what the average Pittsburgh Pirate makes,  While the Yankees are widely criticized for spending vast amounts of money to “buy” championships, Boston is praised for its pared down budget despite having the 4th highest payroll in the Majors.  That they got out from a number of truly terrible contracts from last year, this is much more of an indictment on their poor managerial decisions over the past few years than some sort of Moneyball-ish brilliance this year.  I seriously doubt that the Yankees, who also shed a bunch of payroll this year, would have been praised for their change in philosophy had they won another championship this year.

Perhaps the main reason for this outpouring of underdog support is related to the bombings during the Boston Marathon.  This is perfectly understandable and, admittedly, it has been good to see how the city has come together following the devastating events of last year.  That said, it doesn’t seem to me that this alone should make a big market team with a high payroll, and 2 recent championships made up primarily of players purchased rather than brought up through the Red Sox system, should somehow be sufficient to make a team that much more closely resembles the spendthrift Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees or Los Angeles Angels be given the same sort of treatment as the Pirates, who made their first post-season in over 20 years on a shoestring (in professional baseball terms) budget.

So, sorry Red Sox.  You stopped being the “lovable losers” back in 2004, a notion which was reinforced when they picked up another in 2008.  Beyond the aftermath of the bombings, I fail to see why the sports media seem so invested in trying to recreate this ethos with respect to this year’s Sox.  Yes, they went from worst to first, though this seems more consistent with last season being a statistical outlier season due to a series of terrible signings and a spate of injuries to their big players last year than some sort of fundamental weakness.  That is to say, Boston was likely to return to its stature as one of the top teams in baseball for no other reason than the sheer improbability of circumstances that conspired to take Boston from near the top of the AL East to the bottom.  The fact that a team had not won a championship at home in a long time is a rather sparsely-seen narrative, which is consistent with my idea that it is a contrivance invented to create some interest in a series between two teams, both of which have recently won multiple World Series and which have been (last year notwithstanding for Boston) rather successful in the past decade or so.

Again, this post is not intended to diminish the significance of Boston winning a World Series, an extraordinarily difficult feat even for relatively successful big market, big money teams.  Consider the fate of the Atlanta Braves, who have made the playoffs for all-but-one of the past 21 seasons and have only won one World Series.  That said, this does not entitle a team to reclaim a history of being the “lovable” underdogs that they were a long time ago, even if such a narrative might seem to make the Series more dramatic.  Boston, you stopped being the team that never won from the city whose teams never won to an MLB juggernaut.  While I would certainly encourage to try to avoid turning into the Yankees (obnoxious fans included), similarly you shouldn’t try to portray yourself as have-nots, when you clearly aren’t.  As trite as it might seem, you need to embrace who you are.  And scrappy underdogs you ain’t.

Putting Things in Perspective

Wow.  I don’t know how I missed hearing about the horrific death of Adrian Peterson’s 2 year-old son, though I had heard that Peterson had missed practice for personal reasons, but I only found out about tonight.  Losing a child, especially a very young one, must be perhaps the most painful thing a parent can experience.  I have experienced the death of friends and family, some before their time, but something like this seems incomprehensibly worse.  I have never experienced it, nor would I wish it on my worst enemy.

Though I am by no means a Vikings fan and have a sporting interest their non-success (avidly following another team in the NFC North), I would hope that Adrian Peterson, if he so chooses, is able to do well tomorrow.  Or, at least, that he is able to find some measure of peace on the field.  I remember when Brett Favre played on Monday Night Football following the death of his father and was able to play one of the best games of his career, before finally being taken out and crying in the arms of his family.  While I am certainly not comparing the two individuals or their situations, I make the comparison to suggest that hopefully Petersen, who has already experienced much suffering in his life, will be able to find a way to help use football to deal with his pain.  My deepest condolences, Adrian.

As for those who feel entitled to opine about whether Adrian Peterson should or shouldn’t play this Sunday, shut up.  This is his decision and his alone and only he knows whether he can or should play.  And I hope that fans and players, especially those outside of Minnesota, show some class by not trying to capitalize on his suffering for humour or to throw him off his game.

A Few (Very) Quick Thoughts on the Past Week in Sports

As promised:

1) Denver Broncos vs. Dallas Cowboys — wow.  Just… wow!  If I’d had to pick a team that would have been in this kind of shootout with the Denver Broncos, I’d have probably guessed, in order (the first three needing no explanation):

1 – Green Bay Packers

2 – New England Patriots

3 – New Orleans Saints

4 – Seattle Seahawks (who put up a pair of back-to-back games of 40+ points last year)

5 – Detroit Lions (Matt Stafford on a good day hitting Calvin Johnson for 200+ and 3 or 4 scores)

The Dallas Cowboys would have been, maybe, 8th or 9th on my list.  Romo certainly had the capacity to put up these numbers and the team had enough talent at receiver and running back to do so, but I simply do not recall it having put up these kind of numbers on offence any time recently.  The defensive showing by both teams was rather weak, but this is (and I know I am cribbing this from elsewhere) the front-runner for Game of the Year.

2)  With this game, Tony Romo confirmed to me what I have long known: that he is an immensely talented QB who, thanks to not having had the success of, say, an Eli Manning, has not gotten his dues.  Given the choice between the two, I would take Tony Romo any day of the week.  If Romo had two Super Bowls and Eli had Romo’s record in Dallas, we would be discussing how brilliant Tony Romo was while Eli would be on his 4th or 5th team by now.  Despite struggling in December, Romo has been very consistent while Manning has been very streaky, even in his Championship years.  Neither of them are elite QBs, based on my belief that there are very few elite quarterbacks, that having one-or-more Super Bowl rings doesn’t make you an elite quarterback (if that were the primary measure, then why aren’t we talking about how brilliant Ben Roethlisburger is, especially since he got his 2 rings much sooner than Eli?) and the truly elite are quarterbacks who can consistently make their receivers better, regardless how talented their receiving corps is.  The elite QBs of the current crop (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees — period.) can make average receivers look great and great receivers look like all-stars — Tom Brady is probably the best at this, given Bill Belichek’s revolving door group of receivers.

3)  The Justin Verlander-Sonny Gray piece de resistance pitching duel in Oakland’s LDS 1-0 extra-innings victory over the Detroit Tigers was another thing of beauty, albeit in the opposite sense of the Broncos-Cowboys game, at least in the sense of offensive-vs-defensive-output.  In both cases, the pivotal players at the centres of their respective games engaged in a fierce yet indirect duel of back-to-back displays of command and composure, each leaving his opponents helpless against his mastery.  Ironically, the run-fest in Game 3 of the Dodgers-Braves series (13-6, I believe), was far less entertaining to me, enough that I shut it off rather early on (despite having a personal interest in one of the teams playing).

4) Finally, apropos of nothing, it is time for NFL analysts to stop saying that teams trailing by 2 touchdowns or more who decide to punt it rather than take a long field goal or go for it with under 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter are making a good decision because “they have plenty of time left” or “they are showing that they have faith in their defence”.  The former  is either a statement of the glaringly obvious – that it is not scientifically impossible for the losing team to score the necessary number of points – or it is mindless drivel.  If you are losing by more than 2 scores with under ten to go, you clearly do not have plenty of time left, given the low statistical probability that you will lose.  I have heard this expression reach truly stupid levels when announcers start suggesting that teams needing to score twice with less than 4 minutes to go, regardless of how many time outs they have remaining, have time to kick the ball away and get it back (I have even heard it as late at with just over 2 minutes to play).  Maybe these announcers are hoping to get coaching jobs later and don’t want to be seen as rocking the boat.  The “faith in the defence” is even more nonsense.  If I’m a defender who knows that my team is likely going to lose, I want my coach to be trying to put the ball in the hands of players who can score the points we need; I, defender, will do my best to get us the ball back if the other team gets the ball.  Frankly it is just another stupid thing colour commentators say, probably without even knowing it (though certainly without thinking about it).

‘K.  That’s it.

Hockey, Hockey, Hockey, Hockey…

Just a quick note that the NHL regular season begins on Tuesday.  It is the first full season following the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season.  It will be interesting to see how this year resembles or differs from last season, given that players have a full training camp and full pre-season, as well as the full complement of games at the regular frequency.  As statistics repeatedly tells us, larger sample sizes tend to provide more representative information than smaller ones.  In the case of strike-shortened seasons, it means that small streaks of fortune or misfortune are much more likely to affect overall outcome, as well as the fact that injuries play a much greater role, as players who are out for 7-10 days miss a much greater percentage of the teams overall total, not to mention the effects such injuries, in the absence of a meaningful pre-season, may have on the ability of players to “gel”.

Anyways, here are a couple of stories I am curious about for the new season:

1) What is going to happen with Roberto Luongo, John Tortorella and the Vancouver Canucks?  With the insanity of the Canucks’ self-imposed goaltending dilemma resolved, what with Corey Crawford being shipped out to Jersey for a nominal return, and the exile of Alain Vigneault, will the hurt feelings surrounding Luongo’s tenure over the past few years finally be put behind him?  Also, how will the Sedins and Torts get along, given his clear preference for, shall we say, edgier players?  This situation seems ripe for implosion, though for I know, getting all of Vancouver’s in-house problems out of the way might let Luongo, the Sedins and the Canucks perform at the level they are capable of.

2) Do the San Jose Sharks have enough left for one more crack at a cup, or was last year’s shortened season simply one last gasp for a handful of aging stars who might not make it through a full 82-game year?  The Sharks had a very strong start to last season, though they were ultimately eclipsed by the Chicago Blackhawks, despite the fact that Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Martin Havlay are all in the twilight of their careers.  Joe Pavelski is pushing 30 and Logan Couture looks like he’s ready to emerge as one of the next generation of superstars.  Niemi is a solid, though seemingly unglamourous, minder between the pipes, and whether Brent Burns’ transition to forward continues to bear fruit.  People, including me, have been saying for the past 5-or-so years that if the San Jose Sharks didn’t win this year, their window was surely closed.  I’m wondering whether they can finally make it over the hump or will go down as one of the best that never quite made it.

3) Will the Edmonton Oilers’ rebuild finally pay dividends?  The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since their improbable Cup run fell just short in 1996 and, after painfully operating under the misconception that they were just one or two key players away from the Promised Land for many years, the Oilers blew the whole thing up about 5 years ago.  Following several last-place finishes in the league, which yielded Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have built a stable of young stars up front, including Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner.  With the addition of David Perron, new coach Dallas Eakins is hoping that some of the teams vast goal scoring potential can be realized, while Devan Dubnyk, who played well enough despite a porous defence last year to earn a shot to be the unquestioned starter, might be able to prove himself to be a proper NHL netminder, with Edmonton’s terrible defence hopefully giving him some help.  Can the Oilers show that they’ve taken advantage of their time in the abyss and take the first steps towards a Chicago or Pittsburgh-style turnaround?

4) Will Bobby Ryan fill the void left by Daniel Alfreddson, following his tumultuous departure from Ottawa?  The Senators, in their bid to replace the Vancouver Canucks as the most dysfunctional team in the NHL, managed to turn what should have been what should have been a season marking final (or perhaps penultimate) farewell to a franchise hero into intense feelings of betrayal and failure.  With young star Eric Karlsson’s emergence as one of the best defencemen in hockey, the Senators are loaded with young talent, balanced out by the veteran presence of Jason Spezza and Ryan.  The Robin Lehner/Brian Anderson pairing looks to be perhaps the most intriguing goaltending battle this year aside from the question of when the reins in Jersey will be officially passed from Martin Brodeur to Corey Crawford (the bronze medal goes, in a tie, to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ James Reiner/Jonathan Bernier battle and the Penguins’ battle between Stanley Cup-winning Marc-Andre Fleury and virtually-every-season-since Fleury).  In short, Ottawa is the sort of team that, but for the Alfredsson distraction (which would have been an excellent title of a Robert Ludlum book), might have been expected to make the leap to contender this year or next, with their handful of talented veterans, emerging superstars and large stable of young talent.  But for a slough of injuries, Ottawa might have made it further in the playoffs this past year. If not, this year will go down as the one that Brian Murray and Alfredsson stole.

 

There are many other interesting story lines, and no doubt many more will emerge as the season progresses.  Either way, I’m looking forward to this season in a way that I simply could not get excited about last year’s truncated season.  Should be a good one.

Neither Football (nor any sport) is a Microcosm of Life

mi·cro·cosm [mahy-kruh-koz-uhm] Show IPA
noun
1. a little world; a world in miniature (opposed to macrocosm ).
2. anything that is regarded as a world in miniature.
3. human beings, humanity, society, or the like, viewed as an epitome or miniature of the world or universe.
Also called mi·cro·cos·mos [mahy-kruh-koz-muhs, -mohs] Show IPA .

(from Dictionary.com)

Let me start by saying that, while I am a “Millenial” (or as one of my favourite bloggers is fond of saying (while acknowledging that he did not coin it) a “Slackoisie”), I do not subscribe to many of the changes in sports, especially youth sports, over the past 20-30 years.  Putting aside safety improvements and concerns (which I will discuss later), I am not a big fan of participation ribbons (unless it is for very young children, i.e. 6 and under), of not keeping score in games or of otherwise trying to completely remove the idea of winning and losing.  By the same token, I object to the current refrain by some that new safety rules in the NCAA, the firing of coaches who yell and are abusive to players and mercy rules are ruining sports (or worse).  One of the most irritating permutations of the latter claims is the flurry of arguments that changes to sports are contributing to the “wussification of America” (or insert relevant region where sports are played).

Before examining any of these particular claims in more detail, let me take this opportunity to discuss the title of this post.  The quote “Sports is a microcosm of society” comes from tennis legend (and winner of the famed Battle-of-the-Sexes match with Bobby Riggs) Billie Jean King.  I respectfully disagree.  This is not to minimize her victory or its importance, both real and perceived, but to argue that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of sports and the use of the term “microcosm”.  Likewise, while I acknowledge the role, both within sports and without, of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, of Jesse Owens’ Olympic rebuke to Hitler, of the role rugby and soccer played in easing racial tensions in South Africa, and many other significant moments in sports history, the view that sports is somehow society, life, a nation or its people writ small reflects a fundamental misunderstanding and rather myopic view.

Sports are not a microcosm of life.  Life is far too complicated, too vast, too multi-faceted and too abstract to be effectively subsumed by any sort of organized, regulated activity with a set of specific players and rules.   To be sure, specific parts of life or society may be such that a particular aspect of sport may be used as a metaphor.  Indeed, given the ethereal nature of “life”, it is a thing, much like “time”, which lends itself well to metaphor.  Billie Jean King’s victory may be an excellent metaphor for the accomplishments of women in society, despite the doubts and opposition from men.  South Africa’s quest to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the effect of sporting sanctions in helping to end Apartheid is certainly a testament to the potential power of sports.  But do tennis or rugby, not to mention soccer, football, baseball basketball, hockey, crickey, etc. have any legitimate claim to be a “world in miniature”?  In many cases, as in my previous post about my dislike of college football, it seems that certain sports structures are more like worlds of their own, as opposed to a model of the world at large.

So what, exactly, are sports then, vis-a-vis life, society, etc.?  Returning to my opening paragraph, I think sports play an important role in life, especially for young children.  For young children, sports is an opportunity for them to get exercise, have fun and meet friends, for sure, but also for them to learn, within the context of a fun activity, about teamwork, co-operation and competition, practice, hard work, fair play, overcoming adversity and how to both win and lose gracefully.  These are all valuable skills for future life, and sports presents an excellent opportunity for parents and coaches to help teach children about how to deal with situations in the real world.  For adults, sports may be less about learning, but it provides an opportunity nonetheless for bonding with our fellow citizens over a common interest, health, fun, stress reduction, as well as a way for us to vicariously work out some of our more primal instincts.  As discussed in the case of South African rugby, but also true of Jackie Robinson, the Olympics and the World Cup, sports has the potential to unite conflicting groups of people over common interests, even if only for a short time.

Which is why I take issue with the idea that people seem to think that by eliminating competition from sports is somehow beneficial for children.   While children certainly can and should be encouraged to engage in non-competitive activities, pretending that competition is a bad thing and that the hurt feelings that may be encountered from losing or not being the best player justify taking extraordinary steps to reinforce in children that life is always fair and that they should never have to face adversity is setting them up for failure.  These parents make the mistake of trying to teach children, using things like sports, how they think the world should be, without taking the time to teach them how the world is, however unpleasant it might be.  This is how Millenials are made, and why they are often unprepared for the day-to-day struggles of life.

As for the contrary perspective, that life is hard and sports should hurt, this is an equally flawed perspective.  Life is hard, yes, but sports are not a microcosm for life.  The stupidest extension of this philosophy is aptly demonstrated when people criticize enforcement of mercy rules, yoga, coaches getting fired for using gay slurs, implementing “targeting” rules in football to prevent tacklers from leading with their helmet, or how letting girls play tackle football emasculates men, for how these changes to sports contribute to the “wussification” of America.  While the merits of whether any particular rule change or cultural change (such as outlawing dodgeball in schools) is beneficial or not, or whether a particular rule makes a sport better or worse, are certain the proper subject of debate, it is folly to suggest that this somehow means that attempting to make sports safer (or to take steps to make sports more fun for children) undermines the “toughness” of a society, or that tweaking rules of a game, for better or for worse, is endemic of greater societal ills.  This is idiocy.  If you truly believe that the only way to prevent what you see to be the destruction of America is to have young athletes, ones not making any money, play football in a way that has been shown to contribute to brain damage and serious mental problems, you are the one who needs to get your head checked.

The moral here is that sports can and do serve an important role in our lives, both from helping to teach children important things about life, as well as for health and social development and, perhaps most importantly, for fun.  But sports are not life and life is not sports, though they may share some similarities.  To suggest otherwise is to admit that you have a poor grasp of both sports and life.

Why I Don’t Like College Football

There are many reasons why I do not like college football.  One is simply a preference for the professional game, which features the best players in the world, higher quality of play and better competition.  Another reason is that, as a Canadian, I neither live in a college football town nor attended a NCAA school, so I have no vested interest in any particular team or school (technically, by this score, I should not have a vested interest in any NFL team or, not living in Toronto, any baseball team, but that is of no import).  That said, these are two of the more superficial explanations for my lack of affinity for the US college game.

One major problem I have is the NCAA itself and the Bowl System.  I won’t rehash many of the points made in the excellent book Death to the BCS, but suffice it to say that the frequent stories of corruption in athletics departments and bribery seem to be the rule, rather than the exception.  The Bowl System is stupid, using a computer programmed by a non-mathematician and polls to decide which teams get to play in the “national championship,” with all other bowls being literally popularity contests, so teams that go .500 but draw large fan support get to play in major bowls while winning schools frequently end their seasons with a whimper.  The “playoff” that has been implemented does little to change this fact, other than to increase the number of unscientifically chosen teams to 4 and make 2 of them play one additional game, none of which makes them any more “national champions” than “American Idol” winners can be objectively be considered to be the “national champion” of singing.  At least in basketball the sheer number of teams and number of games during the March Madness tournament lends a degree of credibility to its championship, though certainly many of my criticisms of college football with respect to recruitment and culture are similarly applicable to its roundball counterpart.  Similarly appalling to me is the idea that schools deliberately schedule games against far inferior teams to buttress their records and inflate players’ stats (and give me a break with “strength-of-schedule” adjustments, done by the non-mathematical computer programmer).  As the sheer number of Heisman Trophy winners (another classic NCAA crock of excrement) who have failed miserably at the professional level attests to, racking up obscene numbers against terrible teams proves little about a player’s ability to compete against an actual defence.

My second big beef with the college game is the god-like status that many college coaches are held in, getting paid millions of dollars to run their fiefdoms like despotic tyrants.  For something that should be, at best, a small part of the college experience, many coaches are treated like the Pope but with bigger entourages.  While I am a fan of capitalism, and don’t begrudge people getting paid as much as they can for what they do, the problem with handing over the keys to the castle is that it tends to instill the belief in said coaches that they can do anything they want.  These sorts of coaches care only about themselves and cementing their legacy as winners.  In many cases, this means showing a complete disregard for the health and safety of their players, cutting scholarships of players who are injured, thus denying many of them the opportunity to obtain the education they were promised, making unreasonable demands on player time and conduct and getting involved in more scandals than you can shake a stick at.  The Jerry Sandusky at Penn State sex abuse scandal is perhaps the epitome of what can happen when very powerful men are able to act with impunity, lacking even basic oversight.

The last big issue, and perhaps the most fundamental in my mind, is the myth of the student-athlete.  The oft-repeated refrain that college football programs make lots of money for their schools is a pervasive myth, when the truth is that the vast majority of these programs rely upon college subsidies.  So, in the purely financial sense, many of these programs are depriving students of money that could be spent on things beneficial to academics.  Secondly, as I mentioned above, most schools do not guarantee four-year-long scholarships, reserving the right to essentially deprive players the ability to obtain the degree that they are theoretically working towards.  And theoretical would indeed seem to be the appropriate word.  As the writer Gregg Easterbrook regularly notes in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback Column, graduation rates in many of the top-rated college football programs is abysmal.  In many cases, if players don’t make it to the pros, they leave school with neither an education, nor many of the skills necessary to compete in the job market.  The players are not getting paid, other than tuition and what is often a paltry stipend, and are often faced with the decision between working hard at their studies, thus risking the coach’s wrath (which might get them kicked off the team and, consequently, out of school), or committing fully to their athletic endeavours, essentially wasting the education that, ostensibly, they are receiving as consideration.  As evidence mounts as to the deleterious health effects of hits in football (including research relating to the long-term effect of non-concussive hits, which are more frequent yet receive far less of the attention than concussive ones), the question of whether this is a fair exchange, or at least one whose risks the “student-athletes” are capable of assuming intelligently, becomes more important.  So, then, where is the “student” in “student-athlete”?  The answer is: it isn’t.  The idea of the “student-athlete” exists largely so that schools can justify not paying their players and taking government money earmarked for education to prop up money-losing programs.  Fewer and fewer players at these football factories are sticking around for four full years and players that do make the effort to better themselves academically, Myron Rolle, for example, may do so at the expense of any future professional football career, as such behaviour may lead some to question their dedication to football.

Frankly, given all of this, I don’t understand why any self-respecting college should even be in the business — and it IS a business — of college football.  When, as I predict, a rash of concussion lawsuits is leveled against many of these schools, I suspect that they may come around to my point-of-view.  As for the suggestion by some that college athletes should get paid, I respond that colleges should get out of the business of football altogether.  Take all these teams that are so successful and let them form a professional/semi-professional league, or perhaps even be part of an NFL farm team, where players get paid to play, and leave post-secondary education to actual students.   I may discuss why I prefer my solution to the more common suggestion that somehow nominally paying college students would fix the vast problems endemic to college football.  Yet I digress.

Anyways, this is not to say that I dislike people who like college football.  I don’t expect people to agree with me on everything (or, as my blog name alludes to, anything).  I just think that it is flush with perverse incentives, ones that I choose not to support either by watching games or following them (regardless how hard YS might try to persuade me otherwise).