Friday, August 17

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

We're just a few weeks 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 a Group" button

3. Enter:
Group ID#: 1441
Password: goblue

4. Liberally talk trash on the message board.

5. Pick your winners each week, ranking by confidence. 1=least confident, N=most confident. Straight up, no spreads.

6. Celebrate when you win it all. Like these folks:

Friday, September 9

Several New Posts up at the Sports Trough

Hey Gang,

I've been getting back on the horse lately. Just not on this site, Join me at the all-new Sports Trough, covering a lot more than college football, though I rarely participate in coverage of other sports, the guys do a great job on NFL, baseball, and whatever else is in the news.

My stuff this week:
Why Texas A&M's SECession is your fault
Week #2 Predictions with Michael
Why you should root for Michigan tomorrow and GO BLUE

And finally, they dragged me into some NFL stuff and made me join their Eliminator Pool. But I took advantage of the assignment to poke some fun at them.

Speaking of eliminations, I still find this goofy show hysterical. Posted because it's Friday night and there's only one game on...

Thursday, September 1

Tuesday, August 16

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

We're just a few weeks 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 a Group" button

3. Enter:
Group ID#: 4318
Password: goblue

4. Liberally talk trash on the message board.

5. Pick your winners each week, ranking by confidence. 1=least confident, N=most confident. Straight up, no spreads.

6. Celebrate when you win it all. Like these folks:

Sunday, August 14

Dissent on a Descent

AKA: A Tale of Two Disasters.

New column about Argentine soccer posted at the Sports Trough. Included in the post, for your viewing pleasure, the most complete fan meltdown of all time. Enjoy!

Friday, June 24

Death Is On the Line

NOTE: This column is double-posted over at a brand new website for which I am a contributor, The Sports Trough. So check out all the new stuff there!

Imagine if you will, that during the New York Knicks’ various failures over the last decade there was something far more important at stake. Or that the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of significant consequences for their futility beyond continued razzing from White Sox fans. What if the Knicks were relegated to the NBDL, and the Cubs to AAA ball? Can you imagine the Nashville Sounds playing a summer classic at Wrigley? How would the fans react? Would they violently revolt, or just leave the team completely? What about all the lost TV revenue? These are just a few of the concerns at stake this Sunday in Buenos Aires.

In Argentine soccer, two teams rise above all others in terms of popularity. The owners of the “Superclasico” and one of the most renowned rivalries in all of sport: River Plate and Boca Juniors. In recent polls, roughly 80% of all Argentines root for one of these two teams over all others. They have the most money, and some would argue the richest history. But all that people know about soccer in Argentina may change in just a few days. Over the last three years, both teams have been in a steady decline, clinging to veterans who were either over the hill or lacking the desire to fight for victories. And that freefall has put River in a suddenly extremely precarious position.

There are five levels of soccer leagues in the country, and the bottom two teams from each division are relegated down a notch at the end of every season, with the top two teams sent up. The next two lowest performers get a chance to fight to stay with the big boys. There are only three teams that have never been sent down to the B league: Boca, River, and Independiente. River, for the first time in their history, is now fighting for their lives. Their fans refer to themselves as “The Millionaires,” but the equal parts shock, shame, and disgust they are enduring is unheard of in the 110 year history of the club, and they are feeling nothing like a million bucks.

After several seasons of struggles, River cleaned house, fired their third head coach in a year, and started the season with a lot of hope. After seven games, they were just a few points out of first place. But as quickly as the hope arrived, they began to lose. Seemingly every week. In the last week, they had to win or tie to avoid the “promotion” (games against a B team, the winner of which ends up in the top league). They gave up a goal in the last few minutes to lose 2-1, and the players left the field under a hail of bottles, garbage, and anything else their fans could grab. Instead of Millionaires, they performed more like the derisive nickname their rivals apply to them: the Chickens.

The Promotion works thusly: The fourth worst team from the top division plays the fourth best team from the B division twice. Once on each team’s home turf. After both games, they take the sum of the goals. In the case of a tie, the team from the top division wins.

Wednesday night, some 400 miles from home, River took the field against Belgrano de Cordoba, and laid an egg. The Cordobeses were clearly more prepared for the game, and, with their home crowd going bonkers, blasted in a penalty kick after a clear handball in the penalty box 25 minutes into the game. From that point on, as they have all season when under a bit of pressure, River collapsed. Despite a steady string of free kicks and corners, they got few quality chances and played sloppy the rest of the first half. Eight minutes into the second, Belgrano notched a superb goal by César Pereya. And at that moment, 40% of Argentina was shitting their pants or smashing their television or both.

But what happened next was even more surprising. Suddenly there were fans on the field, not streaking or trying to steal the ball, but attacking the River players. At first it seemed these were fans of Belgrano, trying to celebrate, as they wore no gear marking their allegiance. Instead, these were River fans so enraged by what they were seeing that they tore through the fence separating them from the field. “Find your balls!” yelled one fan as he gave a two-handed shove to a midfielder. After a 20 minute delay and the crowd threatened firehoses, play resumed. Needless to say, this did not help River find balls of any kind, and they returned to the capital under heavy guard with a deficit of two goals.So this Sunday, at 3pm, they will take the field in the largest stadium in the country, but they don’t even know whether their fans will be rooting for them. In fact, with good reason, it is more likely the players will fear for their lives. The murder of soccer players who err is not unheard of in Latin America, and when you consider the sheer quantity of enraged Millionaires/Chickens, if I were a player, I would be worried about any public appearance.

There are other factors worth mentioning. There is a tremendous amount of money at stake. For the television alone, River will make 10 times less money in the B division. Not to mention the fact that nobody will be buying jerseys, hats, or probably even tickets. Some teams go to the B and never come back. River has enough funding that this is unlikely, but even playing in the Promotion was unheard of before this week.

Rival factions are conflicted. The sheer pleasure they have taken over these last two weeks in relentlessly making fun of the River fans has possibly been enough. And many don’t wish to see River leave the top league. Boca, for one, stands to lose money, and to a certain degree all teams do. Think what would happen if the Cubs never played any major competition. That’s a huge fan base that no longer buys visitors’ tickets.

For all the Machiavellian thinking we hear about how the NBA is fixed or that the MLB doesn’t care about their small-market teams, you wouldn’t believe some of the accusations levied at the AFA before the first Promotion game even took place. Everyone is assuming that somehow the league will ensure that River wins the last game by at least two goals. That the refs will be bought off, that fans will storm the field to disrupt the game in a way that affects the scoreboard, that God will come down and declare River the overall winner. Belgrano is likely going to have to play out of their minds just to lose by only one.

I arrived in Argentina with the chance to pick any team from the 20 in the top division. That’s a rare opportunity in life, and after great research and contemplation, I settled on Independiente. River is not our top Rival, but definitely our second. Think Notre Dame/Michigan. And they always beat us. I am not conflicted. I have every desire to see Belgrano win 3-0. My wife (also, not coincidentally an Independiente fan), is of the same mind. And there are so many reasons for this. Perhaps this is comparable Alabama fans rooting for Auburn in their bowl game – something I just can’t fathom. I want River, and all their Chicken followers to suffer. After this, I want to see them go to the C, then the D (note: this will not happen ever, but a guy can dream).

Watching this River team play, they collapse once things go badly. Like Stan Van Gundy said about the Atlanta Hawks, they’re “frontrunners.” Only in this case, they are rarely in front. Now they have to come back home, play in front of 58,000 fans, most of whom want them dead, and find a way to win by two goals. That’s going to be some pregame locker room.

Death is on the line Sunday. Surely at risk is the legacy of one of the world’s most famous futbol clubs. Hopefully nothing more grave. I’m sure the government will try to put 58,000 cops on the field, just in case. If it weren’t a Sunday, it would be the ideal day to rob a bank. I can say this. I’m keeping the hell away from that stadium, and will be eagerly watching the drama unfold on TV, rooting for ruin and heartbreak. It’s a rare opportunity to see a nationwide car wreck live. With slow-motion replays. Today, I’m a Cordobés, too.

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.

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