Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Original Bruce Jenner

There's been so much talk and rampant speculation about Bruce Jenner's sexuality in recent months that his admission in that Diane Sawyer interview that he is, indeed, transgender didn't surprise anybody.  Bruce Jenner, who was known as the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion long before he became a reality TV caricature, will soon begin the transition from life as a man to life as a woman.  So what?

I'm not sure anyone cares that Bruce Jenner's transgender.  And I don't mean that in a negative way.  America has become so evolved as a country that this isn't shocking, and it's something that's become accepted.  There are plenty of transgender people out there.  Bruce Jenner just happens to be one of them.  Just like when Jason Collins came out as gay, it was a brave step, but Bruce Jenner didn't owe this revelation to anyone.  What he wants to do with his own life is none of our business.  (If you're ignorant and closed-minded enough to have a problem with it, I ask you this: how does Bruce Jenner becoming a woman affect your life in any way?)

The reason this is such a big deal, of course, is the same reason Jason Collins' announcement was such a big deal.  Bruce Jenner will now become the face of the transgender community.  Until now, Chaz Bono was the most famous transgender person.  But Bruce Jenner's a much bigger name than Chaz Bono, and Bruce Jenner's been in the public eye much longer.  He was a famous athlete, then he was on that stupid, mind-numbing Kardashian show (thanks, O.J.).  I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it was to be on that show with this deep, dark secret and all the questions and snickering that came with it.

Jenner will still go by "Bruce" for now and hasn't decided on whether or not to go through with gender reassignment surgery.  Should he do it (which I think he will and is one of the reasons he decided to go public), Jenner will become, by far, the highest profile professional athlete to go from male to female.

Shortly after Jenner won Olympic gold in Montreal, Renee Richards emerged on the professional women's tennis circuit.  After Richards came out of nowhere and began winning tournaments, people eventually figured out Renee Richards was actually Dick Raskind, who had been the captain of the Yale men's tennis team before going on to a successful amateur career, playing in the US Championships five times.  (It was actually the similarity of Richards' game to Raskind's that led to her being exposed.)

In the late 70s, being transgender was, to put it mildly, slightly less accepted than it is today.  They tried to bar Richards from tournaments, arguing it was unfair for her to compete against women.  After they refused to let her enter the 1976 US Open, Richards successfully sued for the right to play.  The judge in the case acknowledged Richards as a female and said that denying her the right to compete in women's tournaments was a violation of her rights as a woman, clearing the way for her to play in the 1977 US Open.  Richards lost in the first round in singles, but made the doubles final, and went on to have a four-year career on the women's tennis tour.

ESPN aired a documentary about Richards in 2011.  It explains the challenges she went through, both personally and professionally, before and after the surgery.  This is a different time.  Bruce Jenner will face no such discrimination.  Sure, there's going to be closed-minded people who aren't accepting of his lifestyle choice, but the transition will likely be much easier for Bruce Jenner than it was for Renee Richards.  And let's not forget, Jenner already has a TV deal for a series documenting the transition.

Of course, Jenner and Richards underwent the transition much later in life, but there's been some recent examples of transgender athletes realizing who they are while still in their athletic primes.  George Washington basketball player Kye Allums came out as transgender in 2010 and played for the Colonials' women's team in 2010-11 while identifying himself as male.  Then in 2012, Keelin Godsey, a transgender man, competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the women's hammer throw.  Godsey didn't make the team, but still competes as a female while identifying as male.

Godsey's situation led to a whole new set of questions.  If the system is designed for men to compete against men and women compete against women, where do transgender athletes fit in?  These very questions led to South African Caster Semenya, the 2009 world champion in the women's 800 meters, not being able to compete for more than a year while she was forced to undergo gender tests.  For privacy reasons, they never publicly disclosed the results of Semenya's gender tests, but she's competed without incident ever since and won the silver medal in the 800 at the London Olympics.

Obviously, the question of transgender athletes and their eligibility doesn't effect Bruce Jenner.  He's 65 years old and he won his Olympic gold 40 years ago.  But Jenner's revelation does once again bring the topic to the forefront.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  This is a different world we live in. 

Transgender people walk among us.  Some of them even compete in sports, probably even at a high level.  It's their right to live their lives however they want to, but when it comes to athletics, we have to find a balance between not violating their rights as individuals while also making it a level playing field for everyone else.  How we do that I don't know.  But there has to be a solution that's fair for everybody.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Two Rebrands: One Good, One Bad

I'll never understand the timing of certain things.  For example, why do some college teams change their logo in the middle of the school year instead of waiting until the summer?  In recent years, I've seen a number of schools tweak their logo/branding at midseason, which, again, doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm not the one making the decisions here.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because in the last week or so, two major Division I schools did just that.  They updated their branding at midseason.  One got it right.  North Carolina made minor alterations to create a more uniform brand.  Army, on the other hand, I don't know what they're doing.  Actually, it's not "Army" anymore.  It's "Army West Point" now.  Yeah, I know.  More on that later.

First, let's talk about North Carolina.  If I wasn't telling you about it right now, you probably wouldn't even know that the Tar Heels went through a minor rebranding.  Again, it was more of a streamlining than anything else.  They didn't do anything extreme.  Carolina Blue is a very distinct color that's all theirs.  Doing anything to change that would've been incredibly stupid.  And they realized that.

Instead they, along with Nike, made some minor tweaks so that all of the uniforms look the same regardless of sport.  Each team will still have the Carolina Blue and white, but they'll be limited to only the prescribed accent colors.  Some teams had been experimenting with different color schemes, and this rebranding will stop that.  They also made all the fonts the same and came up with various wordmarks, and said how you can and cannot use each.  (If you want to read the 50-page branding guide, it's actually kind of interesting.)

Perhaps the biggest change North Carolina made is one that I think we can all agree is an actual improvement.  Outside of the Carolina Blue, the most distinct thing about the Tar Heels is the argyle pattern that's been on the men's basketball uniforms since 1991.  Well, starting next season, that won't be exclusive to men's basketball.  They're using it as a uniform accent for every team.  And it looks awesome!  Seriously, check out the new football helmet and tell me that isn't sick.

Of course, they didn't touch the interlocking "NC" logo, which, along with the Carolina Blue color, is the most identifiable part of the brand.  Evidently the logo was slightly modified, but it was so subtle that you can't even tell the difference.  Basically, I think they just adjusted the size/proportions so that it can't be distorted.

Now compare that to the hot mess that is Army's rebranding.  Other than the colors, they basically changed everything.  The new logo's fine, and I like it that black will still be the primary color for their uniforms.  The football team's long had those black and gold helmets, which I think are the most identifiable elements of Army's athletic identity.

However, they missed the mark in one key area.  For some reason, as a part of the rebranding, they announced that they no longer want to be referred to as "Army."  Instead, they want to be known as "Army West Point," just in case there's any confusion with "Army Topeka." 

Here I think Army made a major mistake.  People have known the school as just "Army" for almost a century, going back to those football battles with Notre Dame in the early 1920s.  And they're not suddenly going to start adding the "West Point" just because you asked them too.  Especially since there isn't any reason to.  It's not like it's shorter.

The root of the problem, I think, is that Army was having its own athletic identity crisis.  The Academy often refers to itself simply as "West Point," and a lot of the uniforms say that rather than "Army."  I think the new name is a result of their wanting to incorporate the "West Point" that they identify themselves as with the "Army" that the rest of the country knows.  Nobody would've gone for just "West Point," so joining the names had to be some sort of compromise.

They have acknowledged that "Army West Point" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and they've said that using the full name won't be appropriate in all situations.  "Army West Point-Navy" doesn't have quite the same cachet.  Basically, they're giving people an out to keep using the name "Army," since they knew everyone was going to anyway.

I think the whole "Army West Point" thing is going to backfire.  Schools try this every once in a while and it never works.  St. Francis Brooklyn is really the only one that I can think of where they made the name change and no one seemed to care.  But that's because "St. Francis Brooklyn" is easier to say than "St. Francis (NY)," which is a distinction that always has to be made when referring to that school, which is in the same conference as Saint Francis (PA).

But there are two other schools I can think of that tried to change their name the way Army is, and neither one had the desired effect.  The first is the University at Buffalo.  They're trying incredibly hard to rebrand themselves as "New York."  Except no one will have it.  If you look at their uniforms in practically any sport, the "New York" is the big part of the name and "Buffalo" is in much smaller text.  Buffalo is the largest school in the State University of New York system, but people associate "New York" with the city, not the state.  Not even NYU, a school whose full name is New York University, goes by "New York."  You only hear it referred to as "NYU."

Miami, Ohio, meanwhile, decided a number of years ago that they don't want to be referred to as "Miami, Ohio."  They just want to be "Miami."  Except there's already a school called "Miami."  It's the one in the ACC.  By not wanting people to include the Ohio, you're almost saying you want them to think you're the Hurricanes.  But you're not.  You're the RedHawks.

No one's going to confuse Army West Point with another school, which is another reason why the "West Point" isn't needed.  West Point and the U.S. Military Academy are uniquely linked.  If you say "West Point," people know what you're talking about.  It's been that way for more than 200 years, and it's not changing anytime soon.  The fact that "West Point" hasn't been included in the athletic teams' names until now doesn't change that, either.

There were good intentions, I'm sure, when they decided to change the name from "Army" to "Army West Point."  I'm sure plenty of people were consulted and they all gave the thumbs up.  You'd have to think that something like this might've needed Congressional approval, too.  But it's something that's just not practical, and I think the execution will be much more difficult than anyone imagined.  It was unnecessary, impractical, and, sadly, probably won't work.  That is, unless they change it to "Navy Annapolis," too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NFL Schedule Highlights

Well, it's here.  We've known the opponents for months, but the anticipation finding out when those games are going to be played is over.  Only in the NFL can the release of the schedule be a three-hour made-for-TV event.  Only in the NFL can every detail of each team's 16-game slate be scrutinized over and over.  But, hey, I get it.  It's mid-April.  Of course it matters where the Titans are playing in the first week of December (speaking of the Titans, how'd they manage to get four straight home games, with their bye mixed in?).

But I'm just like everybody.  I get it.  The NFL is king.  And that's why it matters.  And you, of course, want to know what the primetime games are gonna be each week.  As for the breaking down of the schedule, that's part of the fun.  You know I've got some thoughts on that front...

Week 1: As soon as New England won the Super Bowl, you pretty much knew the Steelers would be their opponent in the traditional Kickoff game.  Outside of Pittsburgh, the Patriots' home opponents certainly weren't that appealing.  At least not for a national telecast.  We've also got late games on CBS for the first time in years.  The US Open's exclusively on ESPN now, so CBS didn't need to keep that Sunday afternoon late spot open for tennis.  They're celebrating that with a Broncos-Ravens matchup in Denver.  The last time those two opened the season in Denver, Peyton Manning threw six TD passes in a Broncos rout.  Another interesting late game is Tennessee-Tampa Bay.  They have the top two picks in the draft.  Is the NFL preparing for a possible Mariota-Winston matchup in each of their respective NFL debuts?  Sunday night is Giants-Cowboys in Dallas, which is a staple of the Sunday night schedule.  The Monday night doubleheader isn't great, though.  Philly-Atlanta and Minnesota-San Francisco.

Week 2: The first CBS/NFL Network Thursday night game is Denver at Kansas City, while we've got an NFC Championship rematch on Sunday night, this time in Green Bay.  The Monday night game is Jets-Colts.  Why the Jets have a Monday night game in Week 2 is beyond me.  As for the Sunday afternoon slate, it's highlighted by San Diego at Cincinnati and Dallas at Philadelphia.

Week 3: Since Super Bowl 50 is this season, the NFL is highlighting past Super Bowl matchups throughout the season (come to think of it, that's probably why Jets-Colts is a Monday night game).  It worked out well, then, that the NFC North is playing the AFC West this year.  Because that means Green Bay plays Kansas City.  The Super Bowl I opponents square off in a Monday night game at Lambeau.  Broncos-Lions is the Sunday night game, which could've been a better matchup and can't be flexed out.  Redskins-Giants is the Thursday night game, which you figured would be the case during the first half of the season when the games are still on CBS.  The Jets are home on Sunday afternoon against the Eagles.  Meaning they'll be reunited with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow.

Week 4: Our first London game of the year is the first-ever division tilt across the pond, as the Jets "visit" the Dolphins in the new London start time of 9:30 a.m.  This week's Super Bowl rematch is Giants-Bills, while Packers-49ers is the national late game on FOX.  Ravens-Steelers is a Thursday night game again this season, just as we all figured it probably would be.  Good Sunday night game between Dallas and New Orleans, while Detroit at Seattle is on Monday night.

Week 5: Patriots-Cowboys is the spotlight game, and I've got a big problem with that.  But more on that later.  Schedule gets a little light here as we start cycling through byes.  The only other worthwhile afternoon games are Seattle-Cincinnati and New Orleans-Philadelphia.  The real action's at night.  Colts-Texans on Thursday, 49ers-Giants on Sunday and Steelers-Chargers (Roethlisberger vs. Rivers) on Monday.

Week 6: Three Super Bowl rematches here, highlighted by the first Ravens-49ers game since the Harbowl (also Cardinals-Steelers and Chiefs-Vikings).  San Diego-Green Bay is another good game during the day, and I'm assuming it'll be the CBS national game.  AFC Championship rematch on Sunday night as Andrew Luck will try to finally beat Tom Brady.  Giants-Eagles on Monday night and Falcons-Saints on Thursday night.

Week 7: Seahawks-49ers is renewed on Thursday night in Santa Clara.  This is also the week where we have that Bills-Jaguars game in London that nobody wanted to watch until the NFL announced that nobody could, and now everyone wants to try and find a way to see the online-only broadcast.  As for games actually on TV on Sunday, we've got a Super Bowl XLIV rematch between the Colts and Saints, as well as the second Giants-Cowboys game.  Darrelle Revis will also get to renew acquaintances with his former Patriots teammates in his first game back in Foxboro since rejoining the Jets.  Eagles-Panthers on Sunday night (I'm now convinced the sole reason Philly signed Tebow was so that they could play all their games in primetime).  Monday night is for the birds as Baltimore visits Arizona (the Ravens' fourth trip out west in the first seven weeks of the season!).

Week 8: This week's Super Bowl rematch could also easily be a Super Bowl preview.  Green Bay at Denver.  It's no coincidence that the NFL scheduled that marquee matchup as the Sunday night game opposite the World Series.  Good games in the afternoon, too.  Giants-Saints, Chargers-Ravens, Bengals-Steelers.  But the afternoon highlight is definitely Seattle at Dallas.  New England hosts Miami on Thursday night, as CBS wraps up its simulcasting duties, while ESPN gets Colts-Panthers on Monday night.  Also, Lions-Chiefs in London.

Week 9: Receiving the ideal bye at the exact midpoint of the season are Arizona, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City and Seattle (I hate six-team bye weeks, why not just do four teams a week for eight weeks?).  Among those teams actually playing are Denver at Indianapolis in what's possibly Peyton's final appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium, as he looks to redeem himself for last season's Divisional Playoff game.  Cincinnati and Cleveland in the first NFL Network-only Thursday night game.  Eagles-Cowboys in one of those NFC East Sunday night staples.  Bears-Chargers on Monday night.

Week 10: We've reached the year in the cycle where the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl (XLII, XLVI, 50).  It's also the year they meet in the regular season, and this time the matchup flips back to the Meadowlands.  They play every year in the preseason, but this will be New England's first regular season meeting with the Giants in New York since capping the undefeated regular season in 2007.  Another Super Bowl rematch between teams that these days are completely irrelevant, as Minnesota visits Oakland.  Meanwhile, Rex Ryan's return to the Meadowlands is Thursday night.  (The only AFC East team not playing at MetLife Stadium in Week 10 is Miami.)  The budding Arizona-Seattle rivalry is featured on Sunday Night Football, while Houston is in Cincinnati for the Monday nighter.

Week 11: Most intriguing game of the week?  Denver at Chicago, which is now coached by former Broncos mentor John Fox.  Also, Cincinnati at Arizona, which could be really fun to watch, and Part II of this year's 49ers-Seahawks series.  Because every team gets a Thursday night game, America, at least those people who get NFL Network, will be subjected to a Tennessee-Jacksonville broadcast.  It's division games all around.  Kansas City-San Diego on Sunday night, Buffalo-New England on Monday night.

Week 12: Here's why I have a problem with that Dallas-New England matchup in Week 5.  This is the Cowboys' year to be on CBS on Thanksgiving.  Their two AFC home games are against the Patriots and Jets.  New England was a natural matchup for Dallas on Thanksgiving.  But instead, they're playing Carolina, and for the second Thanksgiving in a row, not a single AFC team is playing.  That's just not fair to the AFC that no teams from the conference are featured on the NFL's biggest regular season day.  For the second straight year!  We will see 75 percent of the NFC North, though!  Detroit's opponent is Philadelphia, and the NBC game is Packers-Bears at Lambeau, which I have absolutely no problem with, especially since Green Bay will retire Brett Favre's jersey at halftime.  The other NBC game (on Sunday night) is the annual Manning vs. Brady showdown, as the rivals meet for possibly the last time in Denver.  Steelers-Seahawks in the CBS national doubleheader game on Sunday afternoon.  Ravens-Browns on Monday night.

Week 13: The Packers visit the Lions a week later than they normally do, and this Thursday nighter is the last one that's on both CBS and NFL Network.  Also, Giants-Jets, which seems randomly placed as just a no big deal 1:00 game in early December.  The Eagles visit the Patriots in what will be a very interesting matchup of Chip Kelly vs. Bill Belichick.  Colts-Steelers in a good Sunday night game, and the traditional Dallas-Washington Monday night game will be in D.C. after taking place in Dallas last year.

Week 14: We're getting down to the nitty-gritty, as the final quarter of the schedule begins with Minnesota at Arizona.  We'll also see Rex Ryan's defense against Chip Kelly's offense and the second Steelers-Bengals game of the season.  The NFL gives us the gift of Cowboys-Packers as the FOX national game, while the Seahawks fly cross country for a Sunday night game in Baltimore.  The Monday night game is Giants at Dolphins.

Week 15: NFL Network's got two games this week.  Bucs-Rams on Thursday night and Jets-Cowboys on Saturday night.  There are also three Super Bowl rematches on tap, as Buffalo visits Washington, Green Bay is in Oakland and Cincinnati visits San Francisco in the Sunday night game.  Very interesting that the NFL scheduled both Bay Area teams with a home interconference game on the same day.  Leads me to believe there's no way they're changing the Sunday night game, even with Broncos-Steelers scheduled for the afternoon.  Looks like CBS will get to keep that one.  On Monday night, it's Detroit's defense against the New Orleans offense.

Week 16: One final Thursday night game on Christmas Eve, as the Raiders play the Chargers.  (There's actually a rule that the NFL can't play games after 9:00 local time on Christmas Eve, but an 8:30 ET start on the West Coast doesn't violate that rule.)  Then the final NFL Network game of the year is the only remaining NFC East matchup that hasn't been on national TV yet: Washington at Philly.  As for the Sunday afternoon games, Patriots at Jets is a highlight.  So is Bears-Bucs, Lovie Smith vs. his former team.  And Green Bay's in Arizona.  Pittsburgh-Baltimore has become like Giants-Cowboys in that every time they play it's on national TV.  No exception here.  After the first meeting's on Thursday night, the matchup in Baltimore's on Sunday night.  Just like last season, Bengals-Broncos is the final Monday night game, except this time it's in Denver.  Also, the final Super Bowl rematch of the Super Bowl's 50th anniversary season is Dallas at Buffalo.

Week 17: As usual, nothing but division games on the final week, which is actually on Jan. 3, 2016.  None of the 16 matchups is more intriguing than Jets-Bills, as Rex Ryan ends the season against his former team.  Early candidates for the Sunday night game?  I'll go with Kansas City at Denver, Eagles at Giants and Baltimore at Cincinnati, with New Orleans at Atlanta as a potential sleeper.  We've also got Seattle at Arizona in a game that I think will decide the NFC West.  Also, New England's at Miami.  The Dolphins have traditionally been one of the tougher opponents for the Patriots, and they beat New England in Miami in Week 1 last season.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Things Not Worth Repeating

Apparently Eagles Coach Chip Kelly wasn't paying attention to the circus that was the 2012 Jets.  (Maybe they don't get ESPN in Oregon, I don't know.)  Anyway, as we all know, the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow thing didn't exactly work out.  It was so bad, in fact, that it ruined two careers, ran a franchise into the ground, and set the wheels in motion for a coach's firing (two years later, but still).

So naturally, Tebow and Sanchez are going to be reunited in Philadelphia, where it makes even less sense than it did with the Jets.  The Eagles already have two other quarterbacks, one of whom they just traded for to be the starter.  There's also talk that Kelly wants to figure out a way to trade up and draft Marcus Mariota, who was his quarterback at Oregon.  If that were to happen, they'd have five "quarterbacks" on the roster. 

Never mind the fact that Tebow was never good, hasn't been on an NFL roster since the Patriots cut him after training camp in 2013, and hasn't actually played in the NFL since 2011 in Denver (and was promptly shipped out of town when some guy named Manning became available).  Chip Kelly's obviously got some ideas churning in his head (as Bob Uecker famously said in Major League II, "Obviously Taylor's thinking...I don't know what the hell he's thinking!"), but I see this going about as well as the Tebow-Jets experiment did.  Get ready Philly.  The circus is coming.  And I don't see there being much "brotherly love" in this situation.

Sometimes there are things that seem like a good idea at the time and end up just not working.  Tebow in New York was one of those things.  Usually, people realize that when something doesn't work, it's not worth repeating.  This isn't one of those times.  The Eagles should've learned from these examples.  When it didn't work, they just let the idea die:
  • Dwight Howard in LA.  It all made sense on paper.  Howard wanted out of Orlando, went to LA and the Lakers thought that by adding him, they were building a super team.  Well, it didn't quite work out that way.  The whole thing was a disaster.  Howard didn't want to be there and it showed.  Then Kobe got hurt, the Lakers struggled, and nobody else wanted him there either.  After one season, Howard left for the Rockets.
  • The NBA's new ball.  A few years ago, they moved away from the tried and true leather ball to one that was made of a synthetic material.  The players hated it.  It didn't feel right and was giving some guys blisters on their fingers.  David Stern didn't want to admit defeat and stuck with it as long as he could, but the player uprising led to a switch back to the leather ball at midseason.
  • The NHL's North America vs. the World All-Star Game.  This wasn't that bad at the start.  It was a gimmick used to promote the NHL's participation in the 1998 Olympics.  But it got old after a while.  The NHL realized that the format was tired and switched back to East vs. West for a few years before the hot mess that is the current All-Star Game format.  Here's hoping the fantasy draft idea wears out its welcome and we go back to East-West sooner rather than later.
  • The Sunday-Tuesday Women's Final Four.  I know I complain about this one a lot, but the final college basketball game of the season should be the men's championship game.  The whole idea of Sunday-Tuesday was so that they could promote the women during the men's Final Four, but it didn't really work.  It made it more anticlimactic.  One more year of Sunday-Tuesday then it switches back to Friday-Sunday (like it should be) in 2017.
  • FOX's glowing puck.  It was worth a shot.  FOX was still a novice at this whole covering sports thing and the NHL was their first big get after football.  They figured they'd try something new and have little sensors in the puck so you always knew where it was.  But instead of being cool, it was weird.  When FOX's contract was up, the glowing puck disappeared from our lives, too.  Not that that was a bad thing.
  • Various new uniforms/logos.  Sometimes they work (Pat the Patriot to Flying Elvis, Buccaneer Bruce to pewter entering America's color scheme), but often they don't.  Remember the Islanders' fish sticks?  Or the Toronto "Black" Jays?  Why do you think so many teams end up going to "new" logos that are just variations of an old one?  They're classics for a reason.  Just ask the Yankees.  Or the Canadiens.  Or the Packers.
  • Cold-weather outdoor Super Bowls.  There's only been one, and there probably won't be another.  Sure, the NFL lucked out that it was actually somewhat pleasant in New York on the day of Super Bowl XLVIII.  Then a massive snowstorm hit a day later and they realized they dodged a major bullet.  The Giants and Jets built their stadium and got their Super Bowl.  It ain't happening again.
  • NHL expansion in the South.  Watching the Winnipeg Jets in their first playoff appearance made me think of this one.  They used to be the Atlanta Thrashers before moving North of the Border.  That's the second time hockey in Atlanta has failed.  And the original Winnipeg Jets were on the verge of bankruptcy in Arizona before they got new owners.  There are still rumors somebody might move to Quebec city.  Why?  Because they like college football in the South.  Not hockey.  (There are obviously some exceptions like the Lightning and the Kings.)
  • John Tortorella coaching the Canucks.  Two summers ago, the Rangers and Canucks traded coaches.  Alain Vigneault, who was fired by Vancouver, went to the Rangers and led them to the Finals.  Meanwhile, John Tortorella went from coaching the Rangers to coaching the Canucks and it was an absolute disaster.  They missed the playoffs and fired him after only one season (which also included a fight with the fans in Calgary.)  I think it's safe to say the Rangers won the coaching swap.
That's just a few examples of bad ideas that weren't worth repeating.  I'm sure there are plenty more.  But the bottom line is certain things are better left as a part of history.  Like Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow being teammates.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But, for some reason, I don't think I am.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Coming to America

Back in November, when the IAAF voted on the host city of the 2019 World Championships and picked Doha, a lot of people were surprised by how close Eugene, Oregon came to actually being selected.  Many thought the fact that it's such a small city and Hayward Field's capacity needs to be greatly expanded worked against Eugene being selected, but how close the election actually was indicated that we were going to see the World Championships held in Eugene sooner rather than later.

As it turns out, it was sooner than we all thought.  After some clandestine meetings, the IAAF awarded Eugene the 2021 World Championships without so much as a vote.  It was a historic move.  The powers that be knew that, and they did what they needed to do in order to make it happen.

The first IAAF World Championships were held in 1983.  They've taken place every other year since 1991.  Yet, in those 30 years, the Championships have been held outside of Europe or Asia only once.  The 2001 edition was in Edmonton.  The United States, which has long been the dominant power in the sport of track & field, has never hosted.  There was something backwards about that and everyone noticed.  It's also the IAAF's chance to tap into the U.S. economy, which they were quick to point out in the press release announcing the selection.

Lamine Diack, who's retiring as President of the IAAF, wanted more than anything for his sport's signature event held in the United States.  So, in a move that will surely cement his legacy, Diack pushed forward with a Eugene World Championships.  Either Seb Coe or Sergey Bubka will be IAAF President six years from now, but the 2021 World Championships will have Diack's fingerprints all over them.  And he's earned that right.  Because the World Championships in the U.S. are long overdue.

But why Eugene and not a larger city like New York or Los Angeles?  Well, for starters, neither one of those cities has a facility, and they really wouldn't have any use for one once the World Championships ended.  The NCAA Championships are held at Hayward Field every year and so is the Prefontaine Classic, one of the stops on the IAAF Diamond League circuit.  The last two U.S. Olympic Trials have been held there, and they will be in 2016, too.  Hayward Field doesn't meet the IAAF's minimum size requirements, but it's expanded for the Olympic Trials and can easily be expanded again for the World Championships.

Eugene can rightfully call itself "Tracktown USA."  There's a passion for the sport in Eugene that simply doesn't exist anywhere else in the country.  Why go somewhere bigger just for the sake of going somewhere bigger?  In Eugene, they get it.  You've got passionate fans who care deeply and know what they're cheering for.  You might sell a few more tickets in a bigger city, but the crowd wouldn't be anywhere near as vocal or knowledgeable.  And certainly not as passionate.  You'd have to give away so many tickets to corporations just to fill seats that there would be absolutely no atmosphere.  That's not a problem in Eugene.  And the smaller stadium might actually be an advantage.  Remember all those empty seats in the 80,000-seat stadium in Moscow?

It's not the easiest place to get to, but Eugene is close enough to Portland (which is a direct flight from most major U.S. cities) that it shouldn't make much of a difference.  Besides, the city will embrace the World Championships in a way no other place in the U.S. can.  They love the sport and it will be the biggest thing ever to hit the town.  And you can bet the whole town's gonna get behind it.  It's kinda like Lake Placid identifies itself first and foremost with the Winter Olympics.

Any lingering concerns about Eugene's ability to hold major events were answered and then some last summer, when Eugene hosted a highly successful World Junior Championships.  It's a small city, but the meet went off without a hitch.  And the fact that Hayward Field is located on a college campus proved extremely beneficial.  The University of Oregon's dorms doubled as the Athlete's Village.  If they want to give the pros some nicer facilities to live in during the World Championships, Oregon could even get some new dorms out of it.

So, the question really should be, "Why not Eugene?"  If you want a World Championships in the United States, which many do, it's the perfect place.  That's why Eugene almost got the nod over Doha for 2019, and why the IAAF was so confident about 2021 that they didn't even feel the need to have a bid process.  Sweden was upset about that.  They wanted to put forth Gothenburg as a candidate.  But even if there was a formal bid process and it was Eugene vs. Gothenburg, it probably would've been a contest.  So the IAAF was really just saving everyone a lot of time and money by doing something that seemed inevitable.

Everything points to the 2021 World Championships in Eugene being just as successful as the 2014 World Juniors.  Some have suggested that it could help the Boston Olympic bid's chances for 2024, but one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.  The 2024 Olympic host will be picked in 2017, four years before Eugene hosts the World Championships.

Giving Eugene a shot makes complete sense all the way around.  You're getting more publicity in the U.S. than ever before and can potentially tap into the American market for sponsors and the like.  Then there's NBC, which will have live coverage in U.S. primetime for the first time ever.  Most of all, you're leveling the playing field a little bit.  The U.S. track team is the best in the world.  After 30 years on the road, they're finally going to have a home game.  I, for one, can't wait.


 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Guilty

None of us know what happened on the night Odin Lloyd died.  Only those that were there know who actually pulled the trigger.  Even after today's verdict, we still don't know if Aaron Hernandez did it or if, as he claimed, it was his two co-defendants.  It doesn't matter.  Because Aaron Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

This case obviously captivated the nation and there are plenty that don't agree with the jury's verdict (did you see what Brandon Spikes, who's obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed, put on Twitter?), but ultimately, they didn't really have a choice.  Hernandez's lawyers admitted he was at the scene.  Once they did that (which they had to, since the evidence had already put him there), it was over.  Why was he there if he didn't commit the murder?  That was a question the defense couldn't answer.  So, it was left up to the jury to fill in the gaps.  And there was only one conclusion they could come to.

Even without a murder weapon, the defense couldn't prove that Hernandez didn't kill Lloyd.  One of the great things about the American legal system is that you're innocent until proven guilty, and in order to convict someone of a crime the jury has to be convinced of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  What made the Hernandez case so difficult, though, is that it was impossible for the defense to prove he was innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.  While no one knows if Hernandez actually killed Lloyd, all of the evidence indicates that he did.  Is there some doubt?  Probably.  But enough for the jury to be swayed?  Clearly not.

All 12 members of the jury spoke to the media on their way out of the courtroom today, and all of them said that they were shocked Hernandez's team placed him at the scene.  That's what convinced them of his guilt, they said.  Although some of them probably did have some doubt, which is probably why it took them so long to deliberate.  But, ultimately, they couldn't reconcile him being at the scene of the murder and not being involved, which left them with only one verdict they could possibly reach.

The thing that convinced me the most of Hernandez's guilt was his reaction when the verdict was read.  "On the count of murder in the first degree, what say you?  Guilty."  No reaction whatsoever.  No emotions.  No remorse.  Just a blank stare.  He looked like a very guilty man.  He did sit down later as the remaining charges and guilty verdicts were read, but Hernandez's non-reaction looked to me like a man realizing he didn't get away with it like he thought he would.  If he actually hadn't done it, there would've been much more of a reaction when the verdict was read.

There were too many holes in Hernandez's story to come to any other conclusion.  His defense team's strategy was always a bit of a longshot, too.  He was targeted by police because he was famous?  C'mon.  Then how come he wasn't arrested until weeks after the murder?  The police interviewed him as a witness long before he was a person of interest.  It was only after their thorough investigation and all the evidence pointed towards him that Hernandez became a suspect.  If he was "being targeted," why wasn't he arrested immediately?

They never did present a motive, but they did a good enough job of suggesting some possible reasons for the murder.  Aaron Hernandez enjoyed being in the NFL and he felt entitled because he was.  In his mind, it was a privilege just to be in his presence.  And Odin Lloyd either didn't understand or didn't respect that.  Hernandez clearly wasn't hanging around the right people or making the best decisions.

Let's not forget, he's also awaiting trial on two other murder charges.  When the judge told the jury that, they knew they made the right decision.  Because no matter what the verdict in that  case is, it doesn't change the verdict in this one.  Hernandez can appeal, but the chances of that being successful appear highly unlikely.

Of course, the sad irony is that two of the three high-profile murder cases that the sports world has been following took place in the Boston area.  Boston marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnayev was convicted last week and the death penalty is on the table when the sentencing portion of his trial begins.  If he does get the death penalty, which I believe he should for what he did, Tsarnayev might actually get off easier than Hernandez.  Because Hernandez will definitely spend the rest of his days behind bars.  And that could be 60 years or more!

That's the saddest thing of all.  Aaron Hernandez had it all.  He was one of the best tight ends in the NFL and he had a $40 million contract with the New England Patriots.  But instead of reporting to Gillette Stadium on Sundays, Hernandez will instead spend the remainder of his life at a maximum security prison 1.5 miles away.  A career so full of promise.  Then he threw it all away.  What a waste!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The 2015 Hockey Playoffs

The NHL regular season has ended and, I have to admit, there were definitely some surprises.  I'm still having a hard time wrapping my finger around the fact that the Sharks can't collapse in the postseason this year.  Meanwhile, the defending champion Kings won't be in the playoffs, either, and neither will the Bruins, who I had reaching the Cup finals in my preseason projections.

But you won't find anyone complaining (except for maybe their fans) that Boston and LA didn't make the playoffs.  Because nobody wanted to play either one of them.  The same could probably be said for Columbus, which was the hottest team in hockey over the last month of the season, but ran out of time and will also be watching the playoffs from home.

So, in lieu of the dangerous lower seed that's hot at the right time, I've got a feeling that we're going to see a postseason where the favorites will be very tough to beat.  But, as we know, anything can happen over the next two months.  That's why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in sports to win.  And that's part of what makes playoff hockey so great.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Canadiens vs. Senators: Ottawa's on a roll.  The Bruins didn't make the playoffs because of how good Ottawa was down the stretch.  So good that the Senators snuck into the postseason position most people assumed was going to Boston for months.  But winning one of the two battles of Canada (five of the seven Canadian teams made the playoffs, and two are guaranteed to advance, how 'bout that?) will take a lot.  Montreal's the better team, and the Canadiens did what they had to do to make sure they (a) had home ice and (b) avoided Detroit.  The Senators will definitely make it interesting, and they'll probably take a game or two, but the Canadiens are simply too strong.  Montreal in six.

Lightning vs. Red Wings: Tampa Bay is a team on a mission, especially after last season's flameout.  The big difference this year, though, is that the Lightning have a healthy Ben Bishop.  As they learned last year, not having your goalie in the playoffs is a big problem.  The Red Wings, meanwhile, kept their postseason streak alive.  They've made it 24 consecutive times, which is coming up on the NHL record.  This is perhaps the most evenly-matched of the eight series.  Tampa Bay's definitely got more firepower, but Detroit has plenty of its own stars and a ton of postseason experience to bank on.  But the Red Wings usually only advance when they play a team that they're better than, and in this series that's not the case.  Detroit might make it go the distance, but the Lightning have home ice for a reason.  Lightning in seven.

Rangers vs. Penguins: Ever since they locked up the 1-seed two weeks ago, the Rangers and their fans wanted more than anything to not see Boston.  Well, mission accomplished.  Although Pittsburgh might've been No. 2 on that list.  But with the way the Penguins played down the stretch, this matchup actually is more favorable than a series with the Bruins would've been.  Pittsburgh's actually been a pretty good matchup for the Rangers over the past couple years, including last season's miracle seven-game comeback in the Conference Semis.  The Rangers have also owned the regular season meetings between the two.  The Penguins will definitely make them work for it.  But I'll take Henrik Lundqvist over Marc-Andre Fleury any day.  Rangers in six.

Capitals vs. Islanders: This one's interesting.  The Islanders were so good for so much of the year, yet fizzled down the stretch and will end up starting the playoffs on the road.  The Capitals, meanwhile, went on the opposite trajectory.  Washington went from a wild card and potentially having to play the Rangers to second place and home ice in the first round.  Except they have a history of underachieving in the postseason.  Alex Ovechkin knows this and will do anything he can to change that.  He'll need some help, though, and they'll also have to get by Jaroslav Halak, who I think was the Islanders' MVP this season.  He's the difference-maker in this series.  Islanders in six, setting up the all-New York conference semi.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Blues vs. Wild: Where did St. Louis come from?  It was Anaheim vs. Nashville for the No. 1 overall seed in the West for the longest time, then the Blues come from out of nowhere to win the Central Division and end up with the same point total as the Ducks.  Winning the division was big because it meant avoiding the Blackhawks, but not getting No. 1 overall means a matchup with Minnesota instead, which might be just as tough.  St. Louis is on that list of teams that continually underachieve in the playoffs, while Minnesota always manages to go deeper than people think.  Take last year's first round upset of Colorado.  I smell another one.  Wild in six.

Predators vs. Blackhawks: Here's why finishing first in the Central mattered so much: it meant playing a wild card instead of the Blackhawks.  And it's not like Nashville having home ice is going to make any sort of difference.  Do you really think that bothers Chicago?  The Blackhawks have become regulars in the later rounds of the playoffs mostly because of their ability to win on the road.  It's also their year in the cycle to regain the Western Conference title, which won't require beating the Kings this season.  Nashville had a great season.  It's a shame that they drew the most playoff-tested team in hockey in the first round.  It'll be a great series, but this is the Blackhawks' time to shine.  Chicago wins Game 7 on the road.

Ducks vs. Jets: In the Pacific Division bracket, it's Anaheim vs. Western Canada.  And the Ducks are probably very thankful for that.  Because last year, as the 1-seed, things didn't go well for them in the California bracket.  This year they're the state's only representative, though.  And they're the strongest team among these four by far.  Great job by the Jets to qualify for their first playoff appearance since moving to Winnipeg, but facing the Ducks will be a daunting task for Evander Kane and Co.  Anaheim, a team with so much promise, played up to it in the regular season.  Now it's up to them to carry that over into the playoffs.  Because they're clearly the superior team.  Winnipeg shouldn't be a problem.  Ducks in five.

Canucks vs. Flames: This is the series I expected to see the least.  But you know CBC's not complaining.  They've got a guaranteed "Hockey Night In Canada" late game for as long as this series lasts, which could be all seven.  Vancouver fired Alain Vigneault because they never won the Cup with all that talent, then watched Vigneault lead the Rangers to the Finals while they watched from home last season.  Now they're back in the playoffs with most of the same pieces in place.  Except for Roberto Luongo.  He got blamed for all of their problems, but I'd still take Luongo in a heartbeat.  And if they lose to Calgary, they'll really regret not having him.  As for the Flames, it looked like they'd be a year or two away.  Well, we were wrong.  And they're the ones that knocked out both the Kings and the Sharks.  Calgary's gonna be around for a while.  And I think they're going to beat Vancouver.  Flames in six.