Crooked Scoreboard

The NFL’s Risks and Rewards

ESPN broke a story on Wednesday in which Bears safety Chris Conte said that an NFL career was worth the injuries and shortened life expectancy associated with it. I’ll let him tell you in his own words:

“I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life. It’s something I’ve wanted to do with my life and I wanted to accomplish. And I pretty much set my whole life up to accomplish that goal. So I don’t really look toward my life after football because I’ll figure things out when I get there and see how I am.”

In the three days since, he’s been called honest, stupid, and everything in between. I’ve refrained from weighing in for two days, in hopes that my take on this will be three days more thoughtful and well-reasoned than some others. Don’t count on it, but at least I’ve tried.

Honesty is a word that’s coming to my mind again and again when I consider what he said, even though it’s not exactly revelatory to say that someone who talked openly about the possibility of an early death has behaved with uncommon candor. The debate on concussions and player safety has been going on for years, as we’ve learned more and more about the role of brain trauma in the untimely deaths of various NFL veterans. But no one has stepped forward to make his case in favor of football as plainly and unapologetically as Conte did.

When I read Conte’s statement, I nodded to myself and said, “yeah, that’s the argument.” Until now, most people who’ve tried to counter anti-football sentiment have gone with, “well, the risks aren’t really too high.” But that assessment, of course, depends on a individualized calculus of how much risk equals too much risk. For some, any risk of traumatic injury means that football should be out of bounds. Not just for them, as in, “I choose not to play this game,” but for everyone, as in, “people should be legally prohibited from playing this game.”

Conte raises a point about football that’s often lost in these discussions: it’s violent, but it’s fun! Maybe not always, but very few NFL players would argue that playing the sport at the highest level is not, at the very least, a sporadically rewarding experience. All fun comes at a cost. Most forms of fun come with some risk, and we live in a world of trade-offs. Just as some people decided it was worth $15 to witness the fun (or “fun”) of Wrath of the Titans 3D in theaters, Conte has decided that a turbulent medical future is a fair price of admission to America’s greatest sports league.

You may think that’s crazy, but Conte’s words are a reminder that value is subjective. This is something we all need to be reminded every now and then. For some, living to the age of 100 is the highest and most righteous of goals, but Chris Conte doesn’t feel that way. Both outlooks are perfectly fine, even though certain folks have difficulty wrestling with the fact that there are people in the world with priorities different than their own. It can be argued that Conte’s view is selfish, that he’s not thinking about his family or his friends. This argument is a compelling one. But he could shoot back with this: if I’m not following my dreams and staying true to myself, then I’m denying my friends and family just as much of myself as I would by departing this world at a younger age.

Conte’s comments also rebut the notion that athletes are unaware of the risks they face. This rebuttal is another reason his entrance into the conversation on NFL player safety is so welcome. He delivers a right hook to those who feel it’s their responsibility to save the ignorant masses from themselves. Smokers, for example, know what they’re getting into. They’re not ignorant to the risks of their vice, and they’re not counting on their invincibility to shield them from harm. They’ve just decided that the buzzy nicotine brain they get from smoking is worth the risk of emphysema, cancer, or a host of other infelicities of the lungs.

**

I’ve reached the stage of writing this piece where I have to lean back in my chair and sigh. I could wrap it up right here and have a nice little hot take for your consumption. But what I’ve written so far only captures a part of how I feel about what Conte said. You might want to mentally insert “End of Part I” above this paragraph. Because, as glad as I am that Conte weighed in, I recognize another, thornier side to all of this.

The comments reflect a really, really grim reality for all the other NFL players and hopefuls in this country, of which there are many.

**

Chris Conte has decided to make his NFL career the most important component of his life. As I have explained exhaustively above, I am fine with this decision, and you should be fine with it, too. Agree with it? Not necessarily, but I don’t think you should lose sleep over it. And please don’t write to your congressman about it during an episode of insomnia.

The problem is, Conte’s attitude toward football is just one of many possible attitudes toward football. Not all players share his extreme gladiatorial mindset, and it’s just as legitimate for these players to want a life outside of football as it is for Conte not to want one. No one should feel that their career undermines their humanity.

Football players should be able to balance sport, family, and whatever other (legal) personal interests they may hold. The desire to lead a normal human life, either during or after one’s career, should not be a preclusion from attaining NFL success. Part of what makes us want to spend our time and money on athletes is that, although they may seem to have supernatural talent in a particular area, they’re still human. We tend to cheer for our local teams. We prefer players who put themselves out there as pillars of our communities, and we usually reject those who come across as mercenaries-for-hire seeking nothing but personal benefit (if you don’t believe me, read up on the story of a Mr. Jeter and a Mr. A-Rod.)

What are Conte’s remarks going to do to players who want a life after and outside of football, as well they should? Are they going to be willing to let that recently concussed cranium rest another week, or miss a game for the birth of their child, when they know the guys competing for their roster spots will mortgage their physical and mental futures for a chance? Will NFL players find themselves in an arms race toward Conte-like levels of dauntless devotion to the game?

Don’t think it’s lost on me that these comments are nothing new to NFL players. They’ve heard and seen it all before. But when Chris Conte went public with ideas that many NFL fans probably hadn’t thought much about, he pushed the seed of a question even deeper into his colleagues’ minds: “Can I really afford to sit this one out?” 

Good on Conte for speaking his mind. He said something that a lot of people needed to hear. Let’s hope it works out okay for those who didn’t need to hear it.

Glover Quin’s Case for Pro Bowl Reform

When is the last time you watched the Pro Bowl? Better yet, do you know when the Pro Bowl is held? Because I don’t. I think it’s played in the week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, but I’m not going to look it up, because I’m writing this for you for free, okay? Anyway, if it is indeed played that week, that seems like a good idea, because the most breathtaking all-star games don’t include any players from the two best teams in the league.

The Pro Bowl is terrible, and Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin agrees. Wednesday, he was asked for his thoughts about Pro Bowl balloting, probably because he’s lagging in the voting despite having tallied five interceptions so far this year. He delivered a rousing speech that you can read here (I appreciate Quin’s attempt to help writers pad their word counts, but unlike ESPN’s Michael Rothstein, I have scruples!)

The short version is that Quin believes the voting should begin after Week 13, at which point all teams have played 12 games. He also thinks NFL scouts should create the ballots, and winnow the list of candidates for each position down to single digits, rather than the dozens that are included in the current selection process.

Would these ideas make the Pro Bowl better? Probably, if one’s idea of a better Pro Bowl involves having the league’s best performers on the field. But a larger problem exists: the high-risk nature of football makes it impossible for the NFL to host an exhibition game that has much in common with what we see on a typical Sunday. If there’s ever a Broadway play that includes an in-game football scene, it’ll look like the Pro Bowl. No one’s going to blitz, or lay a big hit, or fight for extra yardage, and that’s the way it should be. The MLB All-Star Game looks sort of like the real thing, save for a bunch of nonstrategic substitutions, and at least the NBA All-Star Game allows its participants to put on an offensive showcase.

The NFL’s best course of action would be to embrace the awfulness of the Pro Bowl. Hate-watching is a thing now, a cultural phenomenon that is best exemplified by our friends at NBC and their desire to have Christopher Walken “sing” on Peter Pan Live! (adding the exclamation point to the end of the Pro Bowl! should be the NFL’s first order of business during the offseason). Have a couple head cases from the NFL’s past come back and coach the teams; I don’t think Regan Upshaw is too busy these days.

NBA All-Star voting began yesterday, spurring discussions of whether injury-hampered stars like Kevin Durant would really deserve their inevitable selections. Jeff Van Gundy weighed in during Wednesday night’s telecast, saying that the game was “too important” to leave to fan voting, and marking the first time in history that “important” was used to describe the NBA All-Star Game. Mark Jackson responded with the ol’ “it’s been that way forever, you can’t change it now” argument, bringing precisely the dose of thoughtful, well-reasoned argument that we’ve come to expect from him.

The most interesting dynamic at play here is that Glover Quin, a zero-time Pro Bowler, considers the game an honor, while those who are elected year after year probably think of it as a slog, an all-day meeting scheduled smack in the middle of their vacation time. So, maybe if we really wanted these games to be taken seriously, and if we were also a bit crazy, we would allow players to play in the Pro Bowl once and only once in their entire careers. That would never work, but as a thought experiment, it’s kind of intriguing. At least players would give it their all, instead of performing the same half-assed tap dance we see every year.

But maybe that tap dance is good for us. Maybe it allows NFL fans to unite in their hatred of the Pro Bowl, giving us a break from the bad blood of the playoffs. We like football too much as it is, so maybe an annual reminder of just how unwatchable the sport is at its very worst is what we need.

UAB Football: An Obituary

I guess football at UAB was always doomed. I probably should have known that during my freshmen year, when an RA sheepishly admitted to me that were we more of a basketball school.

I had an inkling in 2006, before I even attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, when I read in the Birmingham News that a deal that would have made Jimbo Fisher the coach of the Blazers had been vetoed by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees. The Board was led by Paul Bryant Jr., son of the legendary Crimson Tide coach.

And I certainly should have figured it would happen when, during my junior year of college, a proposal for an on-campus stadium was yet again nixed by the Board. The resignation of President Carol Z. Garrison, a staunch advocate for the football program and for more independence from UA Tuscaloosa, soon followed.

Interspersed between all this were the ten or so UAB games I attended off campus at Legion Field, which was located in a dilapidated part of town. The stadium seemed to earn its nickname, The Old Grey Lady, more and more each day.

Legion Field could generously be called half-full at those games, and comparisons to what I’d seen Florida Marlins and Montreal Expos “crowds” look like on TV often crept into my head.

I’d also heard for years that recruiting efforts were hurt by poor facilities, the lack of a true home field, the wicked UA Tuscaloosa Board, and the shortage of fans more eager to shout “Go Blazers” than “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.”

But through it all, I never bought it. All I saw was a scrappy program that was one day going to prove everybody wrong. And I believed I would look back with pride at the decrepitude that was the early days of UAB football.

Even though games were sparsely attended, they had spirited crowds, and were certainly as much fun to be a part of as any Auburn game I’d been to, if not exactly as intense. Everyone there had a grand time, except, perhaps, for the Blazer players, who usually found themselves on the losing ends of games.

Though the teams weren’t great, many great players came through. Best of all during my time in school was Joe Webb, the current backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. I don’t think it would have been a stretch to call him the best quarterback in the state at the time, and he was certainly the most fun to watch, especially when he would turn what looked like a 20-yard sack into a 30-yard gain.

Then, of course, there is the most famous former Blazer in the NFL, Roddy White, who has starred in the pros far longer than many of his more high-profile peers from Alabama and Auburn.

There was also my brief experience within UAB athletics. Soon after graduation, I took a job tutoring UAB student-athletes. I had a particularly memorable conversation with a glum senior football player, who accused former head coach Neil Callaway—a man handpicked by the UAT Board shortly after it rejected Fisher—of being more of a babysitter than a coach.

But what I remember most were the wide-eyed freshmen and sophomores, who expressed a quiet confidence that things were about to turn around. My belief in the program, though cautious, was still strong. I thought those would be the guys who would finally overcome the obstacles at UAB, rather than use them as excuses.

The worst part of it now is that I was right.

Bill Clark looked like the right man to turn those proverbial lemons into lemonade and motivate his squad to win. A 6-6 record in 2014 may have been a disappointment for many schools in the state of Alabama, but for UAB, it was a triumph, and a sign of better things to come. What a cruel injustice it is to see that the result of this season’s success is the death of the program, with the denial of a bowl game adding insult to injury.

I don’t doubt that UAB football was not profitable, if not outright hemorrhaging money, and that this would have hampered the school’s ability to improve football infrastructure in the years to come. But many other athletic programs struggle financially, too. Perhaps the bigger picture of this story is that it exposes the ugly side of how UAB and UAT have been run, and it sheds light on the unglamorous business dealings of college football programs everywhere.

But for me, as many of my fellow UAB alumni and Birmingham natives have been passionately expressing, I feel that something I had some ownership of has been taken away from me.

And I will miss it.

Bombshell: There is a Dumb Thing on the Internet

If you’re reading this, I would assume you are a user of the Internet, or you’re at least starting to transition away from the sidewalk graffiti edition of our publication. The Internet is home to many wonderful things, because anyone can share their ideas on it with relatively little fear of censorship or criminal prosecution. That’s what’s great about it! What’s not so great about it is that, while freedom of expression thrives, little things like fact-checking and logic are strictly optional. It is with that in mind that I present to you this piece of “information” I came across yesterday:dumbHoo boy… that’s a lot to digest, so let’s take it slowly. It’s also needlessly blurry, so let’s take a minute to rest our eyes.

Okay, ready? The title of this meme, “NBA VS NFL,” does not make much sense. Football players and basketball players generally don’t compete against each one another, regardless of their criminal histories. But then we get to the end, and we find out it’s a guessing game. Fun, right? Well, for the sake of this article, let’s just pretend it’s fun. It’s a mystery, and those are pretty popular these days. So let’s take a look at the evidence and decide whether it’s Adnan or Jay, I mean, whether it’s the NBA or the NFL.

“36 have been accused of spousal abuse.” It’s gotta be the NFL, right? I’m pretty sure that was the slogan that replaced “Together We Make Football” this season. “The NFL: 36 Accused of Spousal Abuse.”

Of course, there’s the issue of just who, exactly, did the accusing, but the person who wrote this wasn’t really into the whole “citing sources” thing, as you can probably see. One would think it’s the spouses who came forward, but it could be anyone, really. Maybe Jeff Garcia is still trying to make a comeback, and he thought he’d give a few dozen quarterbacks a little push off the depth chart.

“7 have been arrested for fraud.” Hmm. This is the NFL, too. Robert Griffin has started five games this season, and I don’t think honesty had much to do with it.

“19 have been accused of writing bad checks.” Things get interesting here, because I’m pretty sure this is the NBA. With all their ten-day contracts and Bird rights and mid-level exceptions, it’s impossible for NBA players to know how much money they really have.

“117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses.” This is a tough one, but I know Adrian Peterson bankrupted Radisson Hotels, and probably set out to destroy The Children’s Place.

“3 have done time for assault.” Ruben Patterson, Ron Artest, and Jeff Taylor. Done! Too easy. (Remember, accuracy and corroboration are purely unnecessary here.)

“8 have been arrested! for shoplifting” In this one, they were so excited to tell us people had been arrested that they couldn’t even wait to hold the exclamation! point in until the sentence was over. Unfortunately, the thing these people were arrested for isn’t very interesting. I mean, everyone who’s ever been to Whole Foods is a shoplifter! If it had said, “8 have been arrested! for reckless endangerment of alligators,” that would’ve been a lot better.

“84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year.” Whoa! These players obviously haven’t seen the commercial with the cars full of alcohol oceans. That’s a lot of DUIs. I have no idea which league this might be, but I’m going to go with the NFL, just because the rosters are over four times as large.

So… which league is it, really?

dumb2Tricky! They introduced two possible choices, but then the “twist” was a surprise third option, because a lie is the same thing as a twist, apparently.

Of course, whether you attribute them to the NBA, the NFL, or the US Congress, none of these statistics make any sense. A quick search of the Snopes database reveals them to be completely false, but that shouldn’t even be necessary. As much as we may dislike our representatives, they’re not going to collectively rack up almost two drunk-driving offenses per week. Most of them probably haven’t even been behind the wheel of a car since they were elected.

This thing came to my attention through the Twitter feed of Darrell Green (@darrellgreen28), a Hall-of-Fame NFL cornerback who was known for his ability to outrun anything with four legs or fewer. Despite his 54 career interceptions, Mr. Green seems to have let this wobbling duck of information get right past him and into the hands of his 38,000 followers. I’m willing to let this one slide, though, since I’m a fan of the guy, and I’m sure he’s dealing with 535 angry congresspeople right this minute.

IF THE NBA SEASON ENDED TODAY: TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS

Here at Crooked Scoreboard, we’re always seeking to provide you with only the boldest and zestiest predictions and insights. As a result, I’ve been given the assignment of analyzing the NBA playoff picture as it stands today. You may be saying: “But Jaime, the season is about 20% done, multiple important trades can still happen, the results of the wear and tear over the course of the grueling 82-game schedule have yet to set in, and teams off to unexpected hot starts have yet to regress to the mean!”. All of that is the new way of thought seeping in, analytics this, Moneyball that. None of that can answer to plain COMMON SENSE, the only tool that has ever served me unfailingly well in my years of writing. Now, onto TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR THE NBA:

IF THE REGULAR SEASON ENDED TODAY: The Raptors, Wizards, and Hawks would occupy the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference.

This just seems intuitively wrong. Now that things are shuffled up and there are no dominant mega-teams to reckon with in the East, we’re left with situations such as this. Can you imagine sitting on your couch on the day of Game 1 of the NBA Finals and one of THESE teams is representing the East? I’m sure none of you guys believe you live in a world where the Raptors, Wizards, or Hawks can win an NBA title. There are no cool guys to latch onto, like there were the last time the West/East disparity was this pronounced, in the early 2000s. There was Kobe and Shaq and prime Tim Duncan in the West, and people kind of just assumed that they would win, but at least the opposition was cool dudes like AI and Vince Carter. DeMar DeRozan is not a cool dude, and his team is inextricably mired in concert with the likeness of Drake, the least cool dude.

DeRozan and Paul Millsap and John Wall are not capable of The“Practice Rant or jumping over a seven-foot-tall French man in the Olympics, and if you’re going to lose in the playoffs, you have to have some sort of thing like that going for you to get people on your side. Being associated with lame rappers is scarcely a new thing for DeMar DeRozan. When he was being recruited to play for USC, a man named Percy Miller promised the program that it would secure the services of the highly touted DeRozan as long as it also extended an offer to his son, Romeo. You may recognize Percy and Romeo as rappers Master P and Lil Romeo. That’s three strikes, DeMar.

Bold Prediction: No Eastern Conference teams are deemed cool enough, West isawarded title and All-Star Game victory, despite 8 minute performance of “Make Em Say Uhh” at halftime.

IF THE REGULAR SEASON ENDED TODAY: The Denver Nuggets would have a record of 41-41 and have scored exactly as many points as they allowed.

This is true. As of right now, 18 games in, the Nuggets are 9-9 and have scored the exact same amount of points that they’ve allowed over the course of the season. This is a feat of mediocrity that, if it happens, will never be eclipsed again. Imagine if every team did this, every team would be 41-41. The sport would not know what to do with itself. The Nuggets are the perfect candidates for this distinction, as a team full of players that are neither good nor bad. In fact, as a team, they’re EXACTLY neither good or bad; their presence on the court has not moved the needle of the league one inch thus far. If I were on a team that went 41-41 and scored exactly as many points as it allowed, having produced nothing of note after pouring an inhuman amount of effort into the thing I was best at in the world, for an entire season, I would fall into an existential crisis. Much like Meursault, the main character of Albert Camus’ The Stranger,who murders someone in cold blood on a whim and feels nothing afterward, one must wonder if JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, after the season, would thirst to do something that, at long last, would make them feel.

Bold Prediction: Nuggets frontcourt capable of murder.

The Mundanity of Insanity, or: How to be a College Football Fan Where It Matters Most

One of my proudest moments as an Auburn football fan came at a particularly low point. It was the 2008 Iron Bowl, and Alabama had just finished pummeling Auburn 36-0. Auburn’s glorious 2002-2007 run of victories against its archrival seemed like a distant memory. I watched what became known as “The Beat-Down in T-Town” hundreds of miles from Tuscaloosa, in a sports bar in Florida, where there were no other Auburn fans besides my sister and I, but seemingly hundreds of Alabama fans, each one practically frothing at the mouth over the long-awaited victory against their in-state foe.

As I made my way out of the bar, a hush descended upon the crowd. Knowing that all eyes were on me and my unwelcome orange-and-blue AU baseball cap, I decided to tip my hat on my way out the door. When I did, I left to a cheer. The Bama fans may have been delighted to see a defeated Aubie put in his place, yet what they also saw was someone who left the massacre of his team with his head held high.

It’s a bit of a cliché for those writing about the Iron Bowl to exaggerate the intensity of the rivalry. It’s just as much of a problem for in-state writers who know what they’re talking about as it is for outsiders who want to inspire fascination over the crazy rednecks in the South. While there is no denying the extremes that the rivalry brings out in people—and no, I’m not about to go on about Harvey Updyke—the disappointing reality of living in the eye of the football hurricane is that the state of Alabama is somewhat calmer and saner than football fans are led to believe. Somewhat.

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One of the more trustworthy witnesses to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is Paul Finebaum, the controversial former Birmingham radio host and current ESPN pundit. He does a pretty good job explaining to outsiders what the rivalry is like in his new book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference. Finebaum correctly compares Alabama fans to New York Yankees fans (with the caveat, of course, that no one from Alabama would ever want to be associated with the word “yankee”). He sees “a program soaked in success, its hands weighed down by championship rings.” Bama fans demand constant excellence and become downright neurotic when their team fails to win games by at least three touchdowns. Lord help them when their team loses.

Like Yankees fans, Bama fans don’t necessarily have direct ties to the university, or to the city of Tuscaloosa. And while I would never accuse them of being anything other than the most loyal fans in all of sports, I’m quite sure more Alabama bumper stickers popped up once Nick Saban got to town, the same way I imagine it worked in 1990s New York, once Joe Torre began bringing championships back to the city.

Auburn fans, meanwhile, almost always have some form of personal or familial connection to that school in “The Loveliest Village on the Plains,” myself included. I did not attend Auburn, but my parents met as students there, which means I more or less owe my existence to that particular public university.

Finebaum contends that Auburn fans are more like Chicago Cubs fans. “The clichéd way to refer to members of that Auburn family is to say they have a chip on their shoulder, that they want Auburn to be Bama when the program grows up. That’s wrong. Auburn folks are actually proud of that chip, proud that they’re not Bama. They embrace their uniqueness. I think they even embrace their inferiority.”

Ouch. While there is an uncomfortable amount of truth in that “chip on our shoulder, we like rooting for the underdog” analysis, he’s a bit off base with the Cubs analogy. For one thing, Auburn fans are much less fatalistic about the inevitability of losing than Cubs fans seem to be (see the rise and fall of Mr. Gene Chizik).

A better analogy can be made with the Boston Red Sox, and not just because that makes a nice comparison with the only rivalry in sports that truly measures up to the Iron Bowl. Like the Red Sox, Auburn is a team with a proud, tradition-rich history, and its fans have seen some of the most talented athletes in the world pass through (Bo, Barkley, and Frank Thomas among them). But like the Sox, there have been moments of brilliant success contrasted with instances of devastating failure (though, fortunately, no curses). Auburn fans have also had to endure the insufferable effects of their rival’s unparalleled success.

But unlike the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, there is very little that separates the fanbases in the real world, geographic, socio-economic, or otherwise. In a place where we must constantly tolerate neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members rooting for that “other” team, it behooves us to avoid some of the ugliness you see in other SEC rivalries—spitting, bottle throwing, verbal/physical assaults and the like (stately 100+ year old trees, however, are far less safe, but again, I’m not going there). We are all ultimately united by being Alabamians. Everyone, even Bama fans, carries a chip on their shoulder from having deep roots in a heavily stereotyped state with a troubled history, yet great football is the one thing we have going for us that no one with half a brain can deny.

What’s important to understand here is that the rivalry’s not only about obsession with the Tide and the Tigers. Simply put, we’re just really in to our football down here. Texas has a reputation for being the most football-obsessed state in the Union, but Auburn and Alabama fans unite in giving this notion a benign, condescending smile.

College football has an irresistible pull here, and its appeal is no mystery. In the world of sports, there is little to distract Alabamians from the ebbs and flows of the college football season. Alabama has never had a major sports franchise, but big-time college football emerged organically long before anyone started giving us credit for it. People do like baseball; Alabama joins most of the South in embracing the Atlanta Braves (myself included, which made for some strange emotions when Auburn played Florida State last year, whose fans enthusiastically performed the Braves’ Tomahawk Chop after first downs and scores). NASCAR is big, of course, and people watch NFL games, but more as a way of getting a football fix than out of allegiance to a particular team.

You’ll hear the (true) stories of how you have to pick one team or the other, and how, even in the heart of the Bible Belt, the answer to that question is more important than what church you go to (or don’t go to). You may also hear about the remarkable phenomenon that I witness every year: an entire state virtually shutting down on a Saturday in late November, a day when the small percentage of people who don’t care about football can get all their shopping done, so long as it’s not halftime.

Stories of families and friendships breaking apart over the rivalry are probably exaggerated, yet not uncommon. Even in my very civil family’s post-Thanksgiving gathering last year, the Alabama fans and Auburn fans were kept separate (the Bama fans upstairs with the HD television, while us Aubies were downstairs with the crummy old TV. Fortunately, justice was served in that now-legendary game).

What’s perhaps not discussed enough is the way you will hear a group of hipsters, or especially an office lunchroom populated only by middle-aged women, discussing college football as articulately as any fraternity house on the campuses of Tuscaloosa or Auburn. People may know how to keep a lid on politics and religion here, but don’t expect them to hold back on football matters. Always be ready for some ribbing, good-natured or not, from the rival fan base.

With the Nicktator and the Gus Bus rolling on this year, it looks like we will remain in a golden age of football in the state of Alabama for some time. For better or worse, when it comes to the sanity of our populace.

Sliders: A Short Story

One Tuesday in June, Coach Grubb decided he would teach the kids to throw sliders, so he looked up the grip while he drove his son to practice. Hold the ball with two fingers and your thumb, Wikipedia said.

When Coach Grubb and his son got to the diamond, the turnout rose to six players. School was out for the year, so the rest of the roster was working summer jobs or joining family members on vacations. That’s what they said, anyway. He heard the grumbling, and the truth was that their parents had probably decided to pull them from the league until Chipper Chip’s Quality Trophies and Screenprinting – AKA The Blue Team – found a volunteer who “knew what the hell he was doing,” someone who could help them get that baseball scholarship in a few years. Junior high was too early to be worrying about that stuff, but even Coach Woodbury had fourth-graders’ parents breathing down his neck about it.

The six kids at practice weren’t all pitchers, but they would be today. Barring a miracle, The Blue Team would have to forfeit on Saturday due to lack of players, but at least they would give up a lot fewer runs than they had in the rest of their games. The kids gathered in a circle, and Coach Grubb walked his phone around to all of them, showing them how they should handle the ball.

“Josh, Tyler, Tim: grab a ball. The rest of you are catchers. I want you to throw ten times each and then switch it up, okay?”

Coach Grubb took his spot in the third-base coach’s box as the players dispersed into their assignments. The first pitch hit the chain-link fence and sent a metallic rattle ringing through the air; the next rolled through the grass. Baseballs bounced off catchers’ knees and sailed over their heads, nearly burning the tips of their hair right off. Coach Grubb occasionally shouted a “good try” or a “you’re getting there” to no one in particular. After Tyler, a seventh-grader who got along well with Coach Grubb’s son, threw several wild pitches, one of which managed to land behind him, he threw up his hands and ran toward third.

“Coach, I think I’m getting the grip, but what about the release point?”

“Just throw it, kid.”

“But-“

“Just throw it, kid. You got this.”

Tyler nodded and ran back to his catcher. He threw the next pitch so far outside that it was closer to Tim’s catcher than his own. Tyler looked at Tim, and then at Coach Grubb, and they all smiled. Even the catchers seemed to be enjoying the challenge, running around like dogs trying to fetch treats from their owners. When the pitchers and catchers swapped roles, the scene was no different. Baseballs darted over and under each other in all directions, catchers constantly got in and out of the crouch, and six kids’ faces were red with laughter.”Eat your heart out, Tom Emanski,” Coach Grubb thought.

“You were really coming along there with the sliders.” Coach Grubb asked Tyler when the hour-long practice ended. Coach Grubb knew Tyler was far from a master pitcher at this point, but he was a tall lefty, and with some practice and encouragement he’d be able to use his long arm to put some real sweep and velocity on the ball. “Was it fun?”

“Yeah, for sure. But my elbow hurts a little.”

“Have an extra piece of pizza, then. Cheese is good for the tendons.”

“Thanks, coach.” Tyler took another piece from the box on the dugout bench. “My dad’s here. I’ll see you Saturday.”

There was no game on Saturday. The next year, Coach Grubb’s son aged out of the program, so The Blue Team entered the Coach Harris era. Coach Harris made the team run laps around the warning track at the start of practice, and got spit in his mustache whenever he yelled. Tyler quit baseball after the first week and started tennis lessons, where he learned to slide his big, slicing lefty serve into the corner of the ad court.

Baseball is Boring, Part II: Solutions

Fans of the blog surely read Part I of this captivating series about baseball being the most boring American-born sport (NASCAR at least had that Tony Stewart scandal recently). After the release of Part I, I received 867 e-mails in a week. This is the part where I give my humble suggestions to the bigwigs at the MLB office. Some may seem outlandish, but so was the designated hitter rule, right, MLB? Let your hair down, Bud. Bud Selig’s astrological sign is Leo, which means, according to online horoscopes of 100 percent veracity, that he loves being the center of attention. This plays right into what I’m about to say: in the world of sports, there are certain organizations and entities that do a better job managing the watchability and entertainment value of their game. Football cracked down on defensive penalties to encourage scoring, and basketball added a three-point line and had crooked refs assuring the success of the most popular teams at one point. One can easily argue, however, that the kings of managing product to assure amusing outcomes are a bit far off the beaten path, culturally speaking: professional wrestling promoters.

Of course, you may be saying to yourself: “But Jaime, pro wrestling is completely scripted, of course it’s designed to be more entertaining than conventional sports, baseball has nothing to learn from those glorified carnies, with their rampant steroid abuse, and questionable grooming decisions, and disconcerting propensity for wearing underwear in front of huge audiences.” To that, I would say: that’s a run-on sentence and our schools betrayed you. Have an open mind, it couldn’t make things more unbearable. Here’s a couple of cool things that could be instituted in baseball, on loan from the world of pro wrestling:

Manufactured Drama – Earlier this week, Clayton Kershaw beat out Giancarlo Stanton and multiple others as the National League’s MVP for the 2014 season. Good for him. He had a great year. Press conference tomorrow, probably, brief ESPN blurb, we forget what happened by next Tuesday. This wouldn’t be the case if Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton had a BLOOD VENDETTA. Baseball has been on the right track on this matter before: in 2000 Roger Clemens of the Yankees and Mike Piazza of the Mets famously had a series of very public disagreements, culminating in Clemens throwing a splintered shard of a broken bat at Piazza as Mike went up the first base line. The press ATE IT UP. Giancarlo Stanton missed several games at the end of the season because he got hit in the face with a pitch. Now, imagine for a second that Kershaw had been the one who threw it, and then Stanton made a dramatic speech from his hospital bed vowing revenge on the man who robbed him of his chance to win MVP. I’d watch. Who wouldn’t?

Lowest Common Denominator Pandering - Professional wrestling has its roots in carny culture. There’s a whole dictionary of vocabulary unique to both carnies and professional-wrestling-industry people, and there’s significant overlap between the two. So, as you might expect, when wrestling grew to its height in popularity in the mid-to-late 90s, it did so on the back of a decidedly lowbrow and prepubescent audience, and satisfied this crowd by bringing increasingly crazy antics to national television. The following things all happened on national wrestling telecasts: THE UNDERTAKER performed a mock satanic crucifixion on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a woman in her 70s was “impregnated” by a wrestler and “gave birth” to an adult-sized human hand on live television, and a man with one leg was thrown down a flight of stairs, but it was okay because he was also somehow a wrestler.

Baseball has none of this fun built in, and that’s not how you hook an audience. People react excellently to Duck Dynasty and Fox News. If you can hook those people, you’re in the money. Baseball has no players who win the hearts of the fans by shirking all the rules and only playing with their caps backwards, or scantily clad female “managers” to accompany them to the plate. Nobody’s even ever been hit by a chair. As the erosion of baseball’s popularity marches on into the future, they may very well wish they’d thought to add more pyrotechnics and masked relief pitchers and crazy stipulations, like the commissioner showing up onto the field at Game 1 of the World Series to the strains of his own foreboding theme music and declaring that only fielders will be allowed to pitch, and only pitchers will be allowed to hit.

Unlocking the Potential of Jazz in Sports

Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for statistical analysis and social experimentation. I have been significantly less vocal in my support of jazz music, a great genre that, much like the Utah Jazz, doesn’t have the popular appeal it deserves, boasts a tradition of racial diversity, and has not produced much of note since 1998. But, dear readers, I shall not be silent about jazz any longer, because a great man has compelled me to act. Clarkson University Professor Ali Boolani has made a discovery that combines sports, jazz, and controlled experiments in ways I never dreamed possible. I will allow Mr. Boolani, an esteemed scholar, pedagogue, and 2016 presidential candidate (fingers crossed), to tell you the rest:

That’s right, listening to jazz while golfing can improve your putting! Sure, the sample size was “small” and the trials were “limited,” but I don’t have to care about that. I was an English major! In all seriousness, though, the results of this limited study were intriguing enough to warrant further, more extensive studies on the relationship between jazz and golfing performance. If you’re more into anecdotal evidence, you can certainly give it a try the next time you hit the links.

But my question to Mr. Boolani is this: why stop with golf? Surely jazz has the potential to enhance athlete performance in other sports. It seems to me that tennis players, with their laser focus and expectation of complete silence during play, could benefit from the smooth, calming tones of Sun Ra:

I have plenty of thoughts on the interplay between jazz and basketball, but a man far wiser and more famous than I has already expressed them more eloquently than I ever could:

Side note: I applied to Clarkson even though I had no interest in going there. The application was free, and I wanted to “practice filling out an application” (17-year-old brains are not very smart). So, I missed out on being part of the greatest experiment in sports history. I guess I’ll just have to come up with something better. Who wants to shoot some free throws while wearing a fedora?

In The Nick of Time

One of my biggest regrets in life, ranked just below “attempting to rig the eighth-grade Class President election” and “only seeing Talladega Nights in theaters twice,”  is that I’ve never had a totally random encounter with a famous person. I’ve run into tennis players at tournaments, and baseball players in ballparks, but that’s nothing to write home about. It’s like seeing a lion at the zoo, only with less potential for maulings.

Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve checked one of those items off my list, and doing so did not involve the impeccable comedic chemistry of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. In the early morning of Wednesday, November 6, on the not-so-mean streets of southeastern Washington DC, I saw Nick Swisher in a Courtyard Marriott.

I instantly recognized his always-happy face and his angular black sideburns. He was in the lobby, standing in a circle with a family of three or four of his fans, who seemed as surprised to see him there as I was. Questions raced through my mind: what is he doing in DC? He’s under contract for at least two more years, so he’s not negotiating with the Nationals. Did he have the Morning Scramble or the Egg White Frittata for breakfast? How do you spell “frittata”? Can’t someone who made $15 million this year stay in a nicer hotel, where the elevators are made of gold and the housekeepers leave Rolexes on your pillow?

Before I had the chance to ask Nick Swisher any of these questions, I turned around and saw that he was gone, presumably on his way to the Comfort Inn in Des Moines, Iowa. So, instead of asking Nick Swisher, I asked Nick Swisher’s Twitter. It told me he was doing this:

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Swisher received the Bob Feller Act of Valor award for demonstrating his support of US military troops, in part through a tour of over a dozen military bases in Afghanistan. Good for him! Though I would’ve toured EVEN MORE Afghani bases, had anyone bothered to ask me.

So, I guess you could say my story is kind of lame, since it doesn’t end with any autographs or photo-ops or bits of wisdom on how to hit a curveball. But it was still nice to see a pro athlete in town for  reasons other than a court date or a grand-jury trial. If the Nationals find themselves in need of a first baseman in a few years, it would be cool to see him come to town again. I’m sure he misses the Courtyard already.

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