Tuesday, December 14

A Proposal to Solve the Student-Athlete Problem

This is a particularly long posting. If you don't want to read all the background, just page down to "A fair solution."

A couple years ago, I started reading Rick Telander's 1990 book, The Hundred Yard Lie. I was just beginning with the writing of my (still in progress) book and was looking for inspiration. I had always admired Telander's writing, and figured this would provide an interesting angle on the game. I was right, but also very wrong. This was Telander's "goodnight and good luck" to a sport he had enjoyed his entire life, first as a player and then in his career as a journalist. After this book, he vowed to cover college football no longer. He had seen too much hypocrisy, corruption, and fraud to continue pretending it was all OK. It is one of the most depressing books I have read, and in the end I couldn't encourage myself to finish it. Why would I want to be reminded all the reasons why my favorite sport is inherently wrong in very big ways in addition to its various small problems (BCS, coaches voting, inane overtime format)?

But it's important to understand that the ever-present elephant in the room has been there for decades. Telander's book is 20 years old and none of his complaints has been addressed. None of his suggestions has been taken. He reached his breaking point a long time ago and probably made the right decision to move on. But where does that leave the rest of us?

The Cam Newton saga has unfolded just like most people expected it would. We know that (A) there was some pretty shady stuff going on but (B) it's not surprising that shady stuff goes on because (C) a player like Newton stands to bring a lot more to the university than it does to him yet (D) it would be a shame if Newton himself did something wrong. The NCAA's lack of direct evidence got the 2010 season off the hook. As fans we get the celebration of a deservedly landslide Heisman winner loaded with caveats.
Image courtesy of EDSBS and LSU Freek

Yes, college football's biggest problem isn't going away anytime soon. There are too many people with too much money at stake. Enforcement will never be able to catch up with everything that goes on, and is not much of a deterrent for those breaking the rules. USC is currently slammed with penalties, but what did Reggie Bush himself have to pay? He gave up an important trophy, but little else. Nefarious people with open palms will always lurk around impressionable youth that can help them prosper. At this point, most believe that too much money is being made for none of it to go back to the players actually generating the cash.

But it's not so simple

Much like the annual Playoffs versus BCS debate, an issue that seems relatively simple is far more complex than it appears. If you asked the majority of fans, they would say "pay the players." But let's first get a few things straight.

Thing 1: The players are already paid. Football scholarships include tuition, room and board, tutoring, and often times compensation for books or a small bit of spending money. Across the entire NCAA, there are over $1 billion in scholarship per year across over 126,000 athletes. Some say that this shouldn't count. That they can't take a typical class load because their priority is football. Obviously, playing big-time football is perhaps the most arduous of extracurricular activities. But let's see just what that scholarship is worth. At my alma mater, Michigan, a year's worth of tuition, room and board, and fees are worth over $49,000 per year for an out of state student, not counting summer semesters. A large number of football players would never have the chance to go to college without the sport. Juggling the demands of team and classes is a tremendous challenge. But many are able to handle it across all levels of collegiate athletics. If they choose not to take advantage of the opportunity they've earned for themselves, that is their fault. The same goes for the student body at large. Plenty of students drop out all the time. Few of them can blame anyone but themselves.

Thing 2: College football and basketball earn money to support the other non-revenue sports. That's a worthwhile and important thing. College swim teams cost every one of their universities money. There's another debate to be had here, but when thinking about these budgets, we must take into account that the other sports are drinking from the football team's hose.

Thing 3: In the FBS side alone, there are 120 teams with 85 scholarship players a piece, plus walk-ons. Can we really say that all the players are contributing equally? That is to say, does Auburn backup punter Steven Clark fill the SEC's coffers to the same degree that Newton does? Of course not. In fact, it is the players like Newton who bring in so much money to the university that help pay for Clark's scholarship in the first place. In this regard, he is no different than whoever swims butterfly on the Tigers' medley relay.

It's a big pie and it's made of trillion dollar bills

Make no mistake. We are talking about a hell of a lot of money. In 2009, Ohio State spent $32.3 million on their football program. They brought in over $65 million, hence the aforementioned Thing 2 above is no minor detail. Despite what you may think about his personal character, Terrelle Pryor has a lot to do with all of those dollars.
Where does the money come from? Primarily four places: ticket sales, merchandising, alumni/booster donations, and TV. The more successful a team or conference is, the more they will have of all of these things. But let's try to bring this back in terms of how the players affect this.

Ticket Sales: The top programs are sold out every year no matter what happens. If they start losing all their games, they will see an impact on attendance, but the failure has to go on for a long time. In an under-construction stadium, coming off a 3-9 season with little reason for hope, Michigan still sold out every game in 2009. Fielding Yost has more to do with Michigan's success in selling tickets than does Denard Robinson. A middle-ground program such as Georgia Tech is going to experience more fluctuation. The Yellow Jackets saw their numbers rise by over 4,000 spectators per game between 2008 and 2009, a season that ended with them in the Orange Bowl. The players and coaching staff earned that extra attendance and deserve the credit. Still, all that winning resulted in less than a 10% increase in tickets sold.

Winning games helps earn a bit more more gate revenue, but do we really want to start paying players based on how many games their team wins? I don't think this is what most "pay the players" advocates have in mind. Correct me if I'm mistaken.

Merchandising and Donations: I would argue that these work much the same as ticket sales. People buy Alabama t-shirts because they love the program. Sometimes they pick a certain number on their jersey to represent the star quarterback, but they also know that it's only his number for four years. There is never a name on the back of the jersey. Tons of Michigan fans wear #1. Does that represent Anthony Carter or Braylon Edwards? Or for nobody since the number's not assigned right now? Wins and losses are going to impact fan support more than anything else.

Television: The TV money being given to the conferences these days is astounding. Street & Smith's estimates that the Big Ten Network could bring $2.8 Billion to the conference over the life of the deal. The SEC's 15 year deals with the ESPN and the CBS are worth over $3 Billion combined. This is an awful lot of cash. It greatly helps with Thing 2 above, but it also pays Nick Saban's salary. Its importance as a revenue factor will only continue to increase. ESPN just announced that 2010 was their most-watched season since 1994. (HT: Doc Sat) Think these contracts are going to get smaller in future seasons?

A fair solution

So can we all agree this is a complex problem? Someone with more time and data on their hands could calculate exactly how much money Cam Newton's efforts have earned for Auburn University and the SEC. Needless to say, we're talking about a hell of a lot more than a year's tuition. Someone of Newton's caliber is almost always going to end up in the NFL and make millions. One could argue that he is getting a free audition loaded with highlight reel successes. It's clear that the most successful college players generally profit in the end. But there will always be the Tommie Fraziers who never earn NFL riches. And furthermore, is "future potential" fair compensation? Remember that we're talking about numbers in the billions of dollars just for the TV contracts.There is a solution that makes sense. It may not be perfect, but it is just. Paying players across the board is not really the issue here. All are already paid, and they do not contribute to the money pile equally. The area where star players have the greatest immediate impact is in TV viewership. TV viewership is the reason that the SEC and the Big Ten and even the Mountain West are bringing in millions of dollars via those contracts. Millions of people tune in to see Cam Newton, Denard Robinson, and Patrick Peterson. The networks use these names to promote their broadcasts which in turn drives viewership which in turn brings revenue from advertisers.

My proposal, The Marketing Trust, is simple: pay the players based on how they are used in marketing these games. Yes, it's two steps removed from the actual revenue stream, but it will work. If ABC wants to put Terrelle Pryor in a commercial to advertise The Game, they should have to pay him. Pay would be based on how the player's image is used. Mention their name, that's $1,000 every time the ad runs. Use a still photo, $2,000. Show one of their highlights, $3,000. Details would have to be worked out regarding whether an athlete is actually "in" the ad. What should be done regarding offensive linemen blocking for LaMichael James in a highlight clip? They get paid less, but they still get paid. A DB being burned by Justin Blackmon? He gets paid, too. Even Hollywood pays the extras a little. Whether I have nailed down the right figures is unimportant. The players driving ad revenue deserve a percentage of these colossal TV contracts, and this would make provide value on what is deserved.

But the athletes would not be paid directly. For each player, a trust would be created that could invest the money accumulated. The account would be turned over to the athlete upon graduation or two years after their eligibility ends, whichever comes first. Those playing after completing their undergraduate degrees would have to wait for eligibility to end. They would therefore remain amateurs for the time being. Any unscrupulous income or other rules violation would void their earned money and send it back to general scholarship funds.

This would remain a closed system, administered by the NCAA and the conferences. Once the appropriate dollar figures are assigned, the process would be as simple as tagging a Facebook photo. There would be no special negotiations for the biggest stars, and no outside forces could affect payments. Players appearing in ads get money sent to their trust. Official, on-air copy read by announcers qualifies as well.

What if the networks were to avoid using athletes in their ads? Don't hold your breath. As attractive as a pair of Georgia and Florida helmets crashing together in a fiery explosion may be, ESPN is going to want to lure viewers in with a bit more. The networks have been promoting these games with the faces and actions of student athletes for decades and that's not going to change any time soon.

Would the networks actually want to go for this program? If they end up paying the same amount to the conferences they already are, they would have no problem. Would the conferences want to go for this program? Not if it costs them a lot of money. So both sides would need to meet somewhere in the middle and divide the expense equally. It may seem like a significant amount of money, but for them it's going to be a drop in the bucket, and both sides get a major publicity win. Instituting this program will only increase viewership from NFL fans who may have trouble with the integrity of the sport.

My only reservation with this approach is that it gives further competitive advantage in recruiting for name programs. Would an athlete ever choose Purdue over Ohio State given the fact that they are much less likely to be heavily marketed? Still, we are tying things back to the ones who are earning the revenue. Cam Newton could have ended up staying at Florida or gone to another of the highest profile programs. In the end, there's no way he could have been a bigger marketing tool than he was at Auburn. With nearly all BCS conference games appearing on TV somewhere these days, the chance to start playing right away at a less renowned program can even things out.

I have long been in the camp of saying that the scholarship, room and board, and BMOC status should be enough. Reading Telander's book convinced me that we have a problem, and I did my best to ignore it as long as I could. I'm not saying that this would totally eliminate bad people doing bad things with bad money. But it would certainly help fight temptation, especially for the players with the highest promise. More importantly, it's the right thing to do for those who are risking their health for our enjoyment.

Sunday, November 28

Devotion and Doubt

I found myself rooting for Alabama over Auburn this past weekend. But I wasn't sure why. Maybe it's because I was still hoping that Boise State would get a shot at the title, and I figured that was the easiest way they could get there. Or because in Pick 'Em I needed a big upset to have to chance to come back in the standings. Or because when I hear that "S-E-C! S-E-C!" nonsense I feel like a cat being petted in the wrong direction - uncomfortably testy. Auburn was one of the last stops on my road trip, and despite my exhaustion it was probably the best Thanksgiving Friday of my life. The fans were as generous with me as anyone, and a jovial day ended with a hearty celebration at Toomer's Corner. My heart should probably always be with Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but I needed my brain to give it the reminder.

I moved to Argentina two and a half years ago, and have felt more distant from college football each season. Not that I haven't been paying attention, but it's just not the same when you can't take in the whole Saturday. Reading box-scores as they come in just isn't the same. I can curse the fact that internet here is too slow to stream all I want, but it doesn't change the situation. The last two weeks, I took an extended break to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family and got to behave like a real fan again. Oh how I have missed taking in the full slate of games every week. That said, it did not go very well for me and my team.

I've been on the side of giving Rich Rodriguez another year, but it was based on limited information. I haven't been able to actually watch many of the games over the past three seasons. I've had to go on box scores, bloggers' analyses, and angry or relief-filled e-mails from friends. In statistics, we'd say that a model built on limited data like this has a lot of error. Over the past two weeks I gathered more info. I watched not just Michigan's games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but various other teams playing various other games. During the Ohio State/Iowa game last week, it struck me how they limit their mistakes to the bare minimum. They are not a superb team, especially on offense. But it's not like they're a good enough team to truly dominate. Except for those occasions when Pryor goofs, the team never shoots themselves in the foot.

It strikes me that as Michigan fans, we must watch between our fingers, waiting for the next big mistake. On Saturday, otherwise reliable receivers dropped easy and hard passes all day. It was sunny and dry. There was no reason for these gaffes. The best offensive play of the afternoon, the one Michigan's run all season where Denard Robinson jab-steps and then throws deep over the middle was negated because of the stupidest of penalties. The defense started out playing strong, but eventually the mistakes arrived via missed tackles or by players being out of position.

It is clear that Rodriguez is a talented coach when it comes to schemes and running an aggressive offense. Whatever he has done to coach Denard in the offseason and during this year has worked tremendously well. Last year Denard wasn't remotely a quarterback. This year he broke records. And I'm willing to forgive his proclivity to turn the ball over as that's what first-year starters often do. But the team is clearly not prepared to play. At the end of the year, the kinks should already be worked out and the blooper-reel stuff eliminated. What we saw the last two weeks simply cannot happen. Maybe they had a bad couple of weeks, or perhaps the team is tired. I'm still working with limited data here, though the more I gain, the bleaker the picture becomes.

If Michigan can indeed snag Jim Harbaugh now, it's clearly the choice with a higher probability of long-term success. Rodriguez was not dealt the best hand when he arrived at Michigan. The talent wasn't there, and many people were working against him, hard. From the old-schoolers in the athletic department who wanted Les Miles, to the Detroit Free Press' hatchet men, to the litigious WVU Athletic Department, he had a lot of unfair stuff to deal with. I am sure the team will improve next year if he stays. There are few seniors, and the offensive recruits coming in seem to have a lot of potential. And it would be impossible for the defense to be any worse, even if Greg Robinson is miraculously spared the axe. Maybe the continuation of this nadir is not all Rodriguez's fault, but that doesn't really matter anymore. It's like one of those sad country songs where the singer burdens himself with blame, but gives a fair share to the fates. Either way, the dude's just going to be miserable for a while, and there's not much he can do to lift his spirits.

I am now very concerned about the ceiling of the team with Rodriguez. If they can't catch a pass in the most important game of the year, and can't stop getting dumb penalties, and can't be in position, will they ever be an elite team? Because that's the real reason Ohio State has now won seven times in a row. They get the most out of the players they have. This year, I'd say we got the most out of just a handful: Denard and one or two offensive lineman. That, more than anything makes me think it's time to cut bait. It's pretty clear that Jim Harbaugh gets the most out of his talent.

Again, I'm out of the loop. I can't even decide which teams to root for anymore. Not seeing games hurts all of it. I guess I still need to hear what people like Brian and Dave have to say. They've been preaching patience all year. But after they saw what we all saw these last two weeks, I can't imagine they have a lot left. Suddenly, a bowl game is small consolation.

At the very least I am thankful to have endured those games and seen so many others. Reading about how Boise State saved their season with a last second bomb only to blow it on two botched chipshots pales in comparison to taking it in live. At the very least I have come to a conclusion about something. Next year, I'm finding a way to spend my Saturdays with football, even if I have to move. Either that or I'll have to buy a guitar and pick up a drawl so I can lament my various losses in song.

Monday, August 30


A couple years back, I did a crazy thing. I quit a perfectly good job and drove my ass around the whole country going to football games. This didn’t happen on a whim. It was an irrepressible urge. I wanted to see the whole country, and there was no better way to do it than via college football. But I needed to meet the fans from around the nation. The idea had lodged itself in various states of my consciousness for six years before finally compelling me to action.

I intended the adventure to be focused on the tradition inherent to college football. I wanted to know why it was so much more important to us than for fans of other sports. But after just a few games, I realized that tradition wasn’t as coveted as I thought it was. It got a whole lot of lip service, but fans had short memories, and their worldview was often not aligned with their stated respect for tradition. This surprised and disappointed me. I learned that for most fans, the desire to fully embrace tradition will always be overwhelmed by devotion to the program. This is true even if it requires self-delusion. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

So it was that one of the overarching themes of my trip became the inherent battle between tradition and progress. They are diametrically opposed, especially as it relates to this wonderful sport. The battle kept surfacing, whether it was Bowls versus Playoffs, SEC fans rooting for their bitterest rivals in bowl games, or students tacking a “Go Blue!” onto the end of “The Victors.” (This still feels appallingly wrong to me.) Even my choice to save time by speeding along Interstate 40 instead of leisurely getting my kicks on Route 66 showed that progress often has its place.

But my goodness, there are limits. If the reports are true, it is 80% certain that Michigan and Ohio State will be placed in separate divisions, and probably play in the middle of the season. Doc Saturday has clearly outlined all the reasons this is stupid, so I won’t even get into the rationale. Stupid is the word. Stupid beats out ill-conceived, reckless, or any other depressing word you want to apply. This is a stupid, stupid idea.
These men agree. With each other.

So what’s the big deal? Plenty of important people do stupid things all the time. As I said, tradition in college football is sadly overrated and becoming more so every year. And as much as many fans may dislike this erosion, they accept it because it’s still the best game in the world. But there are bridges too far. If the bloggers are any indication of where fans stand, the followers of Michigan and Ohio State are presenting a united front. For the core fans, there’s no question this stupid decision will sour them. For the casual ones (read: incremental dollars), the only benefit is that rare and surely elusive rematch, a meager benefit that will be more than balanced out by The Game no longer being The Game.

There’s something really big at stake here. The decision has not yet been made official. Every other change we’ve seen, at least you could argue both sides for fans and players alike. The fans have spoken clearly this time. Not all change is good, especially when it’s stupid. But will anybody care what we have to say? Will anyone actually listen? Are they not only poised to make a stupid decision, but ignore those who have tried desperately to set them straight? The Big Ten fashions itself to be the conference of stalwart tradition, keeping the Rose Bowl stashed away in its favorite jewelry box, not to be shared. Yet, what greater tradition is there than The Game? If the fans will not be listened to now, they will never be listened to about anything. This is the most extreme case we will ever see. This is a litmus test for the sport. Does tradition matter in the slightest? If Delaney moves The Game, then it is dead, and we might as well start having fanstasy drafts and Budweiser hot seats and “He Hate Me” on the backs of uniforms.
Seriously, this is the guy in charge. OK, well maybe he just looks like him.

What I finally discovered was that my big road trip was not about blind devotion to all things sacred. It was about what makes us fans in the first place. That’s a much longer conversation (you can read the book if I ever finish it). The gist of it is that we get to go back to college a few Saturdays a year. And we like going back to college because it was one of the greatest times in our lives. We adore The Game, even when it treats us badly, because it has given us the highest of highs and the lowest of lows but rarely anything in between. It is supreme, thrilling victory, or utter devastation. Every year. This result simply cannot happen in October.

Regarding the importance of tradition, I eventually found acceptance and embraced the difference between me and (some of) you. And, much later, Lloyd Carr even convinced me that we should have a playoff. Perhaps I’m not such a nostalgic codger after all. I’ve come around a bit. Really, I have. Go ahead, kids. Play in my yard. Just try not to burn down my fucking garage while you’re at it.

Other voices from the choir:
Brian talks sense
Ramzy correctly puts things in perspective
M-Zone comes out of retirement!
Add your name to the Facebook page here. It's (quite literally) the least you can do.

UPDATE: Some useful e-mail addresses here. Send a courteous note or sit on your hands. Don't mail theses people a dickish rant just 'cause I deployed the f-word (HT: M-zone):
Dave Brandon (U-M AD): DABran@umich.edu
Gene Smith (OSU AD): Smith.5407@osu.edu
Mary Sue Coleman (U-M President): PresOff@umich.edu
Gordon Gee (OSU President): Gordon.Gee@osu.edu
Jim Delany (Big 10 Commissioner): JDelany@bigten.org

Sunday, August 1

Road Games College Pick 'Em (aka The Big Ten Den)

We're just a month away from kickoff, and that means a reprise of the annual tradition of Pick 'Em. Pick the winning teams across 20 games or so each week and garner glory and admiration.

How to play? Simple!

1) Go here. Sign up.

2) Click the "Join Group" button

3) Enter:
Group ID#: 1837
Password: goblue

4) Talk some trash on the message board

5) Once the games begin, please at least try to beat the dude who lives in Argentina (me)

...any questions, drop me a line.

Friday, July 16

The Well Worn Practice of Self-Delusion

I’ve been through this before. Lots of times. In your heart of hearts you feel things that don’t make sense. You approach the situation with your brain of brains. You say, “Man, this looks pretty bad, if we win it will be a miracle.” And if the game were to happen right then, you’d stay in your brain of brains and robotically accept the results.

But time passes. You read an optimistic report from a blogger who lives in his heart of hearts all day long, and he punches a small crack in the façade. Once you pry open the door to optimism, the train has left the station and won’t stop until you reach “We’re gonna do it” land. It happened to me again.

Aside from their red-card aided loss to Serbia, Germany had been the clear top dog in this World Cup. Argentina had only played one decent opponent. Still, with Messi, with Tevez, even with Maradona who had appeared to have learned a thing or two about coaching soccer, many were picking them to win the game. It didn’t take much for them to convince me. I already had punched that crack in the façade myself. In soccer, everyone always has a chance. You never really close that door.

Towards the end of my big road trip, I returned to Ann Arbor for The Game against Ohio State. Michigan fans had been enduring an ungainly year, one that began with losses to Appalachian State and Oregon. Yet, despite it all, the team had a chance for the Rose Bowl if they could just beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes had lost to Illinois; they weren’t an unstoppable force. But Hart and Henne were both playing hurt, and there was no reasonable way to believe that Michigan would come through.

But as the week progressed, I started to believe. More than anything, after driving 14,181 miles I felt like I deserved it. How illogical is that? Of course I was dead wrong. It was one of the most boring football games I’ve ever seen, a 17-3 punt-fest in which Michigan never remotely threatened to win. I deserved nothing, despite my self-convincing.

When you’re winning, a soccer match takes an eternity. When you’re losing, they fly by. Argentina's 4-0 defeat was done in a flash. People here could accept defeat, but 4-0. 4-0!?! It ripped the heart out of the country. When the game ended, the city was dead quiet. Even the birds and the breeze were in hiding.

That’s what sucks about self-delusion. It always comes to an end, but there’s no way to know ahead of time. I really don’t know squat about soccer, and still managed to convince myself that victory would be ours. What is wrong with me? Nothing that's not wrong with everyone who wants his team to win I suppose. SI's Joe Posnanski did the same thing while hoping for a compassionate LeBron.

As night fell, Buenos Aires began to shake off the stink of failure. People left their homes to have a coffee, talking meekly of things other than futbol. I found myself in a taxi with a driver who was not so shy. "That was an embarrassment! Argentina should never have lost that game!" I told him that was 4-0, and Germany has been the best team so far. "No. Argentina is better, and should have won!" I must say I admired the man for the willful optimism even after such a stark result. Maybe self-delusion can be used to obscure reality instead of making it sting. But in the face of such a strong reaction, I had nothing much to say. I was as silent as the birds during the afternoon.

Monday, June 7

Crazy for the Copa

Alternate title: Loco por los goles

If I were still in the US, I am sure I would be paying attention to the World Cup. In a week or so. At least some of the games. But as I happen to be living outside of North America, my new neighbors are doing their best to infect me with their fever. Obviously, one of the perks of moving to Argentina was being able to live in a futbol-crazed land during the World Cup. We're still a week away, and the hype is living up to, well, the hype.

The event taken over the entire city. The best analogy I can think of is if the Super Bowl were to go on for a month and if two thirds of the league was invited to compete. But only if we had waited four years since the last one. Two months ago my male coworkers started drawing up scenarios on whiteboards, and getting excited over potential matchups like North Korea vs South Korea, and "colonial combat" like USA/England, Brazil/Portugal, and Chile/Spain. About ten days ago, the women became infected, too. This commercial is alarmingly accurate:

Argentina just celebrated its Bicentennial a couple of weeks ago. The entire city was decked out in flags and ribbons. Argentina being Argentina, many buildings didn't get their act together very quickly and hastily draped the Celeste y Blanco just a day or two before the event. Lucky for them, there is reason to leave the decorations up. This isn't like keeping your Christmas lights blinking until Easter. If anything, the purpose is far more immediate now. Recent studies have shown that the country's populous is in a better mood and has more optimism about the nation's future during the tournament.

Though opinions abound, nobody really has any idea how the Argentine team is going to do. Members of the international press have universally labeled them the "most intriguing" team in the tournament. They're right.

Let's review the backstory in brief. Argentina has some of the best players in the world, including the reigning Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi. Couple that with a long history of success, and anything less than reaching the semifinals is an automatic letdown. But Team Argentina had been seriously struggling with disappointing performances in World Cup qualifiers and friendlies alike. This led the AFA to take the desperate decision of putting the squad in the hands of God, aka Diego Maradona. Maradona, as you may know, is one of the most famous footballers in history, and a national treasure. He's also had trouble with drugs and never proven himself to be a successful coach. Nevertheless, to most Argentines, he is surely a deity, and in the city of Rosario, there is even a religion dedicated to him. The decision was risky, but nearly all Argentines were supportive at the time. He is, after all, the man who did this:

But Argentina didn't fare much better under Maradona's watch, and only barely qualified for the tournament. This isn't quite like Duke nearly missing the field of 64, but it's close. After locking up a spot on the last day of play, Maradona made some pointed comments to the media at his press conference. "For those who doubted me," he declared, "you can blow me." This led to a two-month suspension enforced by FIFA, and further doubt in his abilities to lead the team.

Locals, however, have been eager to put the blame for the teams failures on the players, most pointedly at Lionel Messi. Too many times to count, I have heard people claim that he tries for Barcelona, but for Argentina, "no hace nada." Even though I'm just a layman, it is clear that when Messi has the ball, the rest of his teammates simply stand around watching. Think Kobe Bryant in 2007. I may not be the ultimate expert in futbol yet, but even the best players can't take on the other 11 by themselves.

It's obvious to me that the team is disorganized and unstructured. Plus, it's not like we don't have data. Messi scored 34 goals in roughly as many games for Barcelona in the last season. If he suddenly can't get the ball into the net, is it that he has lost his will to compete or that he is being misused? There is a simple answer to this question. But, admitting as much would mean believing in a fallible God. Nobody is ready to do that, no matter how outrageous the press conference.
Will this all end in hugs and smiles? Time will tell.
At this point, no one knows what will happen, save for one simple idea. If Argentina does well, Maradona will say and do something interesting. If they fail spectacularly, he will say and do something interesting. He has already promised to run through the streets of Buenos Aires naked if they win the whole thing, an entirely idle threat unless he finds a way to make the team to play better. At this point I can say that I have become infected with the same fever as the rest of the people living in this fine city. And at this moment my lack of knowledge doesn't even matter. I don't know what's going to happen, either. But I am counting down the days until it does.

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