Thursday, February 04, 2016

A Beautiful Game--and a Once Beautiful Game

The day after Steph Curry went off on the surprisingly good Washington Wizards for 51 points, the Golden State Warriors went to the White House to get praised and teased by President Obama, for what they did last season.  Meanwhile the New Yorker published a terrific piece describing the Warriors' "beautiful game."  It puts into words why it's so much fun to watch them.

In football:
An opinion piece in the New York Times affirms much of what I've tried to say here about football and physical trauma.

George Lundberg begins with the cautionary tale of boxing, a popular sport which brutal injury consigned to a lesser role.  His example of football's growing brutality is the one I've mentioned (though I'm hardly the only one): the Steelers-Bengals playoff game.

But while Lundberg (a pathologist and football fan) called for banning boxing, he concedes that he can't yet do so for football.  He makes the same point I tried to make: "In part, I admit, because of my own bias toward football, but also because I believe that violence is a byproduct of football — one that can be reduced — not the intended result, as was the case for boxing."

If the NFL could redesign the game to emphasize violence, which it has (with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of sports media) then it can redesign it to make it less violent, and no less a sport of skill, strategy and athleticism.

So far the NFL has shown no leadership in this area, and is therefore dooming the sport to a slow but certain death. "At a bare minimum, the N.F.L. should publicly admit that there is a real problem with the risk of player brain damage (as it has in court documents). It should follow the lead of college football, which now punishes offending players with immediate expulsions from the game."

There are other ideas out there, such as widening the playing field.  But the NFL is not exploring them, and it's not hard to see why.  Besides avoiding costly lawsuits by not admitting the links to brain damage, this violence is deep in the NFL culture, though that might be changing at least among players, and certainly among parents.

I won't be watching the Super Bowl.  I haven't watched one in several years.  All those commercials and injury time-outs.  But I may well watch highlights, of what I expect to be a Carolina victory, 40-16.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back to Back

What probably doomed the New York Knicks on Sunday happened in Philadelphia on Saturday.  It took a last second tie-breaker for the Golden State Warriors, with the best record in the NBA, to beat the Sixers, with the worst record, after being ahead in the second half by 24 points.

So even though Steph Curry had a bad shooting night in New York, and the Warriors sloppily turned the ball over too much again, they won their second of the back-to-backs by 21 points, 116-95.

Draymond Green helped compensate for Curry by hitting 9 for 9 and 20 points.  Klay Thompson had 34.  The break can't come too soon for the Warriors as they are showing signs of weariness.  And yet...two victories, and a big second half against the Knicks to win by 21.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Long Goodbye

Thanks largely to the Bengals and their homicidal players (though that team is not unique in that respect), the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second playoff game in a year they had a real shot at the Super Bowl.  The following week, one of the heroes of their first Super Bowl victory since the 70s glory years, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El told a Pittsburgh reporter than he wished he had never played football.  Not yet 40, he has trouble walking and maintaining balance, and is showing since of cognitive problems similar to those suffered by people twice his age.

Randle El was not a bruising lineman, but a swift and graceful wide receiver.  He did not take hits on every down.  Yet he apparently suffered substantial damage.  He told the reporter he thought professional football would be gone in 25 years because of the results of its fashionable brutality.

Apart from the injury to quarterback Big Ben which involved some extra action meant to injure, the felonious hit that hurt the Steelers was a visibly brutal one to its latest swift and graceful wide receiver, Antonio Brown.  Though to my knowledge he hasn't made waves over this incident, he also took a group of high school players to see the Will Smith movie about NFL football called "Concussion."

In his meditations on the subject in the New Yorker, its editor David Remnick relates aspects of  football's history to make the case that this brutality has always been part of the game.  It was in many ways worse when it was primarily a college sport, in the early 20th century, when 19 players were actually killed in one season.

Rules were changed, equipment improved, but Remnick writes the pressure to make big showy hits was unrelenting.  Yet, he says, people who see this violence and its results can't quite back away from watching:

 But the modern football fan in possession of a conscience and a reasonable knowledge of the horrific statistics about injuries suffered by players comes to resemble a nacho-scarfing version of St. Augustine, who, faced with his own lust, addresses God: “Lord, let me be pure . . . but not yet.” Precisely. Let’s confront the crisis in football . . . but not yet. It’s kickoff!

In a way I fall into this category, but for me it is not because I have a love-hate relationship with the violence.  Maybe I'm a pollyanna on this, but I maintain that football is a great game that doesn't need homicidal hitting.  I played it, though not in more than a semi-organized way, up until leaving high school, and though high school football was king in my western Pennsylvania (which was known for incubating college and NFL stars), there was blocking and tackling, but not hitting. Not really, or at least not much.

It's those aspects of the game--the skills, the strategies--that appeal to many fans.  It's harder and harder to look past the homicidal hits and the people (the NFL, non-playing team leaders and sports media) that promote it.

Unless the NFL radically reforms its game, it is doomed.  As Remnick says, even legendary figures of the game like Mike Ditka say they wouldn't let their children play football now.  In the short term, teams from high school to colleges will survive on players from poor families, the analogue of slaves in the gladitorial ring, with the ability to take care of their families as the suicide incentive.  Before the whole thing collapses.

For now we've got Denver and Carolina in Super Bowl Fifty.  Denver doesn't have a chance.

Basketball in the NBA is about to get especially interesting, as the much publicized Golden State Warriors have the first of four regular season games with the San Antonio Spurs, who have quietly had a season almost the match of Golden State's.  Incredibly they have not played each other this year yet.  Golden State demolished Cleveland last week--a forty point destruction of their Finals opponent last year, that probably led directly to their coach being fired, despite a winning record at the top of their division.  The Spurs seem like the Warriors real competition.

Update: The Spurs brought a 13 game winning streak and a 38-6 record to the Golden State arena in a meeting of the two most dominant NBA teams in at least a generation.  The Warriors destroyed them by 30 points, 120-90.  Department of defending Steph Curry--guarding him close and harrassing him provided him opportunities to make them look silly with his ball handling and magnetic attraction to the hoop.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Pop and Shame

In baseball, the SF Giants added an important free agent outfielder--just not one anybody was talking about, Denard Span.  Strikingly like their other big name acquisitions, Span is coming off a sub-par year, beset by injuries.  So they are all more obvious risks, though the potential of each of them is high.

Span is also much in the mold of players they have, only more so: he's fast, a good fielder (mostly center), and an excellent contact hitter with not much home run pop. So the Giants may do their mix and match outfield on a somewhat higher level, with Span, Pagan (who Span may replace in center and as lead-off), Blanco and Pence.  While this makes for a team character of play, it also has that conspicuous limitation of not much home run threat in the lineup.  They'll probably take a hard look at Jared Parker, their rookie last year who had a brief show of power.

There are contingencies to address, especially given the number of injuries these days, like quality back-ups at first and third.  Good opportunities for the farm system, and lesser known additions.  Even if only one of the three new Giants has a year towards the top of their potential, it should keep SF competitive in their division.  That will probably remain their best option for postseason.

In football, I keep getting drawn back in and rudely pushed away--basically by the violence and the injuries they cause.  I played tackle football as a kid, and I loved the game.  But at that time it was about tackling and blocking, not hitting.

The Bengals player who leveled Antonio Brown of the Steelers and gave him a concussion in one of the ugliest hits I've ever seen was penalized.  He should have been arrested.  Forget suspension.  He belongs in prison.   The Steelers are complicit in this travesty, with the coaches and organization repeatedly refusing to criticize this kind of play.  Sports media are more that complicit--they're largely responsible for the elevation of the vicious hit.  (ESPN is so bad in other ways as well.  Their on-air reporters are often wrong in the most obvious way, their writers can't even get the day of the game right--but then editors appear to be a thing of the past.)

From a fan standpoint, that vicious hit and some pretty clearly intentional attempts to cause pain and injury in the sack that injured Big Ben's shoulder, deprives us of the game we have a right to expect.  Even if both play in Denver, neither is likely to be at full strength and skill, as befits a playoff game.

But beyond that, the violence is just shameful.  And I am ashamed.  

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

It's Not the Baseball Hall of Fame...Yet

Back to baseball for a moment.

Department of I could still kick myself:  Some years ago I found myself footloose in Seattle and a couple of hours too late realized it was the home opener of the baseball season.  Bad enough, but Ken Griffey, Jr. homered that day.  It wasn't one of his best years but still...I never saw him play.

He made it into the Hall of Fame today with a record proportion of votes, all but unanimous.  But frankly I can't take the Hall of Fame seriously.  It's just not a Baseball Hall of Fame if Barry Bonds isn't in it, period.  It's just another hall of politics.

On another note, I've written here several times about my belief that the San Francisco Giants broadcasting team is as good as it gets, especially after listening to announcers for other cities.  Now here's a piece by someone who claims to have heard announcers for every MLB team--and he agrees.

Tea leaves seem to fall in favor of Dexter Fowler as the free agent outfielder most likely to come to the Giants.  Not the acquisition some are hoping for, and bigger names are still out there, but the Giants have won championships with over-achieving outfielders in the postseason.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Hype or Hope? Steelers The Most Feared

Is it hype, hope or what?   A long article by Andy Benoit details reasons for the headlines' assertions: Nobody Wants to Face the Steelers: An explosive downfield passing game and a creative defense make Pittsburgh the most dangerous team in the AFC bracket.

Another article by Hunter Felt in the Guardian details why the Steelers are "a force to fear" in the AFC playoffs.

Benoit's reasons are the lethal passing attack as deployed by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who he calls "the league's most gifted QB."  In addition to a quick and big scoring offense, enabled by a sturdy offensive line, Benoit cites an improving defense in the later part of the season.  He also sees intelligence in defensive designs that make up for weaknesses as cornerback.  He concludes: "The Steelers, on both sides of the ball, give an opponent a lot to prepare for. That alone is dangerous. Factor in that the Steelers in many places, including everywhere on offense, are more talented than those opponents and what you have is the scariest team entering the AFC postseason."

Hunter Felt admits the defensive breakdowns and Big Ben's interceptions, but if they can be controlled he sees the Steelers as strong against less than stellar AFC opponents.  A lot of quarterback uncertainty on the other teams is the big factor, he believes (including Tom Brady's ankle).  The Steelers may not be the best team in the conference he concludes. "They could, however, very well be the team that none of the others want to face when the games matter the most."

So is the remarkable coincidence of two such articles due to sportwriters talking to players etc. or to each other?  There's undoubted merit in the case they make, but it doesn't seem Pittsburgh sportwriters are so buoyant.

Anyway, the passing game may depend on a versatile running game, and so far that's been DeAngelo Williams.  Late Monday the unofficial word/rumors are that his ankle is sprained, the MRI was negative, so he's "day to day" (hopeful) but the Post-Gazette writers are suggesting that his chances of playing Saturday against the Bengals are slim (hopes dashed.)

With injuries for a playoff game, teams get cagey.  But if Williams isn't near 100% he might not be effective anyway.  His yardage gains slowed towards the end of the season, but he's been important as an outlet and short pass receiver.  So it's a good thing that the next guy up, Fitzgerald Touissaint, caught a two-point conversion in Sunday's game, though his 24 yards on 12 carries wasn't great.

The Bengals announced that they aren't preparing to bring back their injured starter at QB for the Steelers game Saturday, so McCarran will start again.  He did pretty well against the Steelers before, but one stat from the Bengals victory over Baltimore Sunday stands out: they went the entire game without converting a third down.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

New Year Updates

First the (unexpected) good news for Steelers fans: they're in the playoffs.  After they unaccountably lost to a terrible Ravens team (for the second time this season), they needed Buffalo to defeat the Jets, and they had to win against an even more terrible team, the Browns.  Underdog Buffalo did win, and the Steelers mostly let Cleveland defeat itself.  Within minutes after the game, just about everybody on the Browns was fired.  Quarterback Johnny Football was reportedly in Las Vegas gambling.

The Steelers are the sixth seed but they won their first Super Bowl of this century from that position.  However the difference is in the Bad News: in the Cleveland game, running back DeAngelo Williams had what looks like a serious ankle injury.  Not many teams had a running back as good as Williams when their star running back went down for the season.  But if Williams is gone, too, the Steelers prospects even for a win against the Bengals in the wild card game are pretty dim.  Even the ever-impressive receiver Antonio Brown can't win it by himself.

That's the difference--the Steelers got healthy at the end of the seasons when they got to the Super Bowl and won it.  They are not healthy now, and though essentially backing into a playoff spot isn't fatal (witness the 2014 SF Giants in baseball), they already have little margin for error, without a dominating defense.

What the Steelers do have going for them is playoff experience, especially at quarterback but also across the team.  That made a big difference for the 2014 Giants, who had great heroic moments but also profited mightily from the jitters and mistakes of opponents.  The Steelers will need lots of mistakes by their opponents to get very far.

On the other hand there's an NBA team so deep that injuries barely register: the Golden State Warriors.  Steph Curry's current nagging bruise is clearly having an impact, but in the 3 games he didn't play or played little, the Warriors won two.  If not Klay Thompson, then Draymon Green or somebody else steps up and looks superhuman.   Granted the Warriors haven't been putting teams away lately but a record of 31-2 is merely ridiculous.

In baseball, everybody's waiting for the remaining name free agent outfielders to make their choices, but none of them are.  It's rumored that the Giants are actively interested in at least one, but of course nobody really knows.  There's certainly no panic about it in San Francisco.

Meanwhile the Pirates seem to be having a decent off-season with acquisitions.  There are several ex-Giants on the team now, most recently pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.  With the Cubs making a big offseason push to dominate in the division, the Pirates are basically strong but will need perseverance and steadiness to weather things in the toughest division in baseball.