Monday, November 26, 2012

Why the New York Knicks are a complete fraud

People in New York are breathless, and not just because of the recently-arrived cold snap that has accompanied the thicker crowds and gridlock that can only mean the holiday season (for my gift, I'd like another half-hour each day to make sure I get to work on time).

The reason for a lot of this self-induced asphyxiation is the smoking start of New York's favorite winter sons, the New York Knicks. And a lot of the noise coming out of the Garden isn't just coming from the fans.

They are off to a 9-3 start, and 5-0 on their home floor. Carmelo Anthony already has been touted as the NBA's MVP. Mike Woodson and Glen Grunwald are in the discussion to be named Coach and Executive of the Year, respectively. Next thing you know, the Knicks City Dancers will replace the Rockettes at Radio City. We might as well cancel the rest of the season and reserve the Canyon of Heroes right now.


Did I mention the Knicks began play Monday morning 9-3? As in 12 games? As in 12 games of an 82-game NBA schedule? Sure, the Knicks have impressed, and for a team that has not shown much in the way of postseason chops since Pat Riley (and to a lesser extent, Jeff Van Gundy) stalked the sidelines, I'm here to tell you to take it down a notch. Or several.

I'll take it a step further, for the record: The Knicks are a mirage, an apparition, a fraud. You heard it here first: The Nets will finish the regular season with a better record; the Knicks will be hard-pressed to wheeze to the end of the regular season above .500.

Why? The reasons are many. You want to say the Knicks have plenty of veteran experience? That's a diplomatic way of saying they're old -- the oldest team in NBA history on opening night of the season, according to Stats, LLC (32 years, 240 days). Half their roster is comprised of players with 10 or more years in the league (not including Pablo Prigioni, who is classified as a rookie despite being 35 years old). They have eight players 30 or older, five 35 or older, and one -- Kurt Thomas, who is 40.

Rasheed Wallace has already missed two games with a sore foot that won't get any better as the schedule intensifies. Ronnie Brewer already is hobbled with a bad knee. This team is a Jason Kidd rolled ankle and a Tyson Chandler knee sprain away from tumbling to oblivion.

But wait, you say -- the Knicks are getting back Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert, who surely will add to the depth of this team.

Well and good, sort of. For one, Stoudemire's best days are long behind him, and you have to wonder how much he'll actually be able to contribute when he does get back on the floor. It's more likely he'll just line up as another casualty in a list that's sure to grow as the season progresses. And by the time Shumpert is cleared to play, there's a good chance the Knicks' season will be in as much ruin as the ancient, creaky guys who wear their uniforms.

It would be impossible for any team -- much less one with as much mileage as this one -- to maintain the torrid pace they've set. A case can be made they've played their best basketball of the season. And the Christmas decorations just went up in midtown. You have to wonder how much love there will be for the Knicks once Valentine's Day rolls around, which should be more than enough time for everyone around here to catch their breath.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rex Ryan has us all fooled ... right?

Rex Ryan is either the smartest, most cunning, most innovative coach in the history of the NFL, or ... he's not.

What to think? Which way to go? There's no middle ground here. It's sort of like cats -- you either love 'em (which I do) or you don't. You're either in or your out, to paraphrase Pat Riley, who actually was pretty smart, cunning and innovative. You either have confidence the plan will work when it counts, or you don't.

The Jets have been pretty terrible throughout the first three games of the preseason: This is not news. The defense doesn't look bad, but the offense is a mess. The line has holes, especially at tackle (Winston Hill is not walking through that door), their receivers are banged-up and old, their top running back is pretty pedestrian and though they profess confidence and trust in their starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez, he's going to have to play with whiplash every week, what with that Tim Tebow guy breathing down his neck.

And through it all, Ryan has remained the steady, stoic captain of this ship that everyone else can see is taking on a lot of water. And instead of grabbing the buckets and bailing, he's calmly forging ahead, telling us not to worry. Trust me, he assures us. I got this.

"I see some encouraging signs that we're headed in the right direction," Ryan told my New York Post colleague, Brian Costello. "It might not be obvious to everybody in the public. Again, I'm confident in our offense. I'm confident in our coaching staff. I'm confident in our players. I believe that we're going to have a very productive offense when it's all said and done."

Uh, OK. Maybe we're wrong. Maybe in all of their shrouded-in-secrecy practices Ryan and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano have cooked up the most amazing, intricate mind-blowing offensive attack, the likes of which we've never seen before. Maybe Tebow will line up as quarterback, running back, H-back and wideout ... on the same play (Hey, Bugs Bunny did it on the baseball field, so there is precedent). Maybe Antonio Cromartie will catch passes ... from Nick Mangold.

Or maybe not. Maybe behind closed doors and security-encased fields far away from the prying eyes of the media and Bill Belichick's camcorder, they're as frustrated and frantic as their fan base is. Maybe they're just trying to buy as much time as possible to figure something -- anything -- out before the regular season starts, when all the world will finally see whether the Jets are fantastic ... or frauds.

Ryan and the Jets either have all of this under control ... or they don't.

Which is it? We'll soon find out.

Monday, August 27, 2012

NFL preseason = stealing money from fans

As I was sitting at my desk at the New York Post Sunday night, monitoring the Jets-Panthers preseason game to prepare our coverage and headlines, I couldn't help but notice the quality of what I was watching, well, stunk.

Much is being made in New York this morning that the Jets are the only team in the NFL that has not scored a touchdown through three preseason games, and, according to NBC, are the first team to accomplish that forgettable feat since the 1977 Falcons.

But this isn't about trashing the Jets (given what we've seen from them so far, there'll be plenty of opportunities for that later). It's about a system that's clearly broken, and the fact the most powerful, richest and most successful sports league seems to want to do nothing about it.

The NFL preseason has become a foxhole. With the artillery barrage of a four-game schedule (and imagine -- it used to be six), all teams want to do is get through it without anyone getting killed. So they trot out their starters for a series or two, or maybe a half, or not at all. In many instances, stars don't even suit up. Then there's the factor of teams keeping it vanilla, for fear of showing a play, formation or personnel that could come back to haunt them down the road. All of which leads to a bland, boring, tedious exercise.

All of that is fine, given teams have to evaluate draft picks and free agents, and make personnel decisions. And for the players on the bubble, it's perhaps the best chance they have to impress coaches and land a coveted roster spot.

I get all that. The problem is, the NFL charges its fans regular-season admission and parking for the privilege of watching a third-string quarterback you'll never see again try to complete passes behind a fourth-string offensive tackle to a fifth-string receiver.

For a league that talks the talk about integrity and protecting the shield (and while we're at it, bring the real refs back; a subject Believe the Type has already addressed), it's time Roger Goodell's corporation takes a much-needed and necessary step:

Cut the four-game preseason down to two games -- or better yet, ditch the preseason entirely.

A good friend of mine is a Jets season ticket-holder. He has four seats, each worth approximately $125, which he, of course, has to buy in order to purchase his eight regular-season games. That's an extra $1,000 out of his pocket for a third-rate product -- not even including parking (he has a parking pass for which he pays $15 per game as part of the season-ticket package) the time spent driving to and from the stadium, the price of gas and concessions.

For the poor guy who just shows up at MetLife Stadium for a one-shot deal just to watch a game, it's nearly as prohibitive; say he buys two of the cheapest seats way upstairs (about $50) and $50 to park -- to park! -- he's out $150 before he even goes through the turnstiles.

Sure, you can go through a secondary ticket provider like StubHub, but that's not the point. My friend suggests teams could either make preseason tickets free and spread out the price for them throughout the regular season. That would at least show appreciation for the fans showing up, or, in his words, "acknowledgement that you're getting screwed."

Taking it a step further, he suggests teams could take that $1,000 and return it to their season ticket-holders in the form of gift certificates for concessions and souvenirs that could only be used at the stadium -- a pretty good idea, if you ask me.

On the field, the preseason has long outlived its usefulness. The NFL could replace preseason games (at least two of them) with two live scrimmages against opposing teams, held during training camp. Charge fans a nominal fee (say $25) and charge for concessions. Teams will still make money, and fans won't feel as if they're getting fleeced.

Goodell has never been shy about engaging NFL fans when it comes to labor negotiations, player safety or other initiatives. After last season's Super Bowl, he thanked the fans for their unwavering support and said, "Our commitment to improve everything we do is ongoing."

Now it's time to not just say it, but show it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Who can rescue the Red Sox? Terry Francona ... Yes, Terry Francona

By now, I think we all can agree the Bobby Valentine experiment in Boston has pretty much reached the end of its shelf life. Even from the very start, the fact he wasn't the unanimous choice of the Red Sox braintrust should have been a major red flag, but once the Sox went all in on Valentine, there was no turning back.

Much of what has gone down has been pretty predictable. Bobby V comes in, says what he wants, does what he wants, tweaks veterans, forces trade of popular veteran (Kevin Youkilis), makes spectacle of himself in background of video shoot, rinse, repeat.

All of that probably would have been acceptable if the results were good. One of my favorite lines in these types of situations was once uttered by one of my favorite people in professional sports, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who liked to say, "When you win, you're a genius. When you lose, you're a moron."

It's that simple, really. The won-loss record is the difference between Bobby Valentine being goofy and eccentric, and just being a train wreck. So here we are.

It would be in the best interest of all involved for Valentine and the Sox to go their separate ways after the season. He already received the kiss of death -- I mean, the vote of confidence -- from management, so he's got that going for him. He's a proud man, firmly entrenched in his methods, who would probably find it very easy to go back and sit in his old chair at ESPN.

Which brings us to who I believe would be the perfect replacement for Valentine ... the guy he replaced, Terry Francona. Yeah, that Terry Francona, who's now sitting in that seat at ESPN, at this moment gushing over the Little League World Series.

I came up with that idea (I'll take credit for it since I haven't heard anyone else say it) this past Friday, in my recurring guest spot on All Around Sports, hosted by John Ingoldsby on Shameless plug alert: Listen to the show on this link, at about the 44-minute mark:

We were talking about the Red Sox and how the Valentine tenure would likely end, and I blurted out, "Don't be surprised if Terry Francona comes back to manage the Red Sox again."

Now, I'm not even sure I totally believed that when I said it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Sure, last season ended badly. But if there's anyone who has gravitas in the Red Sox clubhouse, it's Francona. It was just a couple of weeks ago when he, as a member of the ESPN crew covering the Sox-Yankees Sunday night game in New York, walked into the visiting clubhouse and held court with a group of his former players -- which shows he still has plenty of allies on that team, and he enjoys their company and didn't feel awkward about letting that be known.

Let's face it, the guy did win two World Series with that team. It's not as if he became an idiot overnight. I don't think Red Sox Nation would have any problem reembracing the man who helped orchestrate the end of The Curse. As long as it means the end of this new one -- with fried chicken and beer off limits, naturally.

And it's not as if there isn't precedent for a move like this. During the Bronx Zoo years in the 1970s and '80s, George Steinbrenner fired and re-hired Billy Martin as manager of the Yankees five times officially (and about 100 times unofficially). That club was probably the most dysfunctional team in the history of pro sports, but it won, and in the end, as we've duly noted, that's all that matters.

Now I have no idea if Francona would be interested in coming back, or if Red Sox management would entertain the idea of him coming back. But he did have a reaction to the mess that has engulfed his old team, and he began by telling USA Today he tries "to be a little careful."

Said Francona: "During my eight years there, we never really had a whole lot of drama outside the clubhouse. That's their business, not my business ... the idea is to keep it in-house. You can deal with it and it goes away. When it goes public, everybody puts their spin on it even when they don't know what they're talking about and it becomes a national story ... The better teams handle it and move on."

The Red Sox clearly need to move on. So make the trade -- Valentine back to ESPN and Francona back to Boston.

Weirder things have happened.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NFL must end officials lockout -- now

Picture this: A company at the unquestioned top of its field, at the apex of success with its profits only forecast to go higher and higher with no ceiling in sight, decides to endanger everything it has built by waging labor war with a small but crucial department of its operation -- which just happens to be the gatekeeper of the integrity of the entire corporation.

Why would that company even think about messing with such a good thing just to save a couple of bucks? 

Excellent question. And it's one that Mike Arnold, the lead counsel of the NFL Referees Association wants an answer to, with the NFL officials lockout now expected to last into the regular season, which begins Sept. 5 when the Giants host the Cowboys.

"This is one of the perplexing things about why the NFL would lock us out," Arnold told USA Today. "Why would an organization with $9.3 billion in (annual) revenues expected to rise to $12 billion or $14 billlion in the forseeable future jeopardize the health and safety of its players and the integrity of the game by hiring scab officials?"

The amount of money the league and its officials are haggling over -- a $16.5 million gap in negotiations, according to Arnold -- seems like nickels and dimes ... if not pennies in perspective to the entire picture. But there's more:

The NFL wants its officials to become full-time positions -- a break from the current and past, as many officials have had long and successful careers in other fields. The league also wants to hire three additional officiating crews to allow the existing ones to take a week off here and there, with the possibility of rotating new officials into the current crews should the performance of individual referees decline. Not surprisingly, the officials' union is against all of that.

Arnold said the league also wants to blow up the officials' pension program and replace it with "annual contributions" the league would pay to retired officials instead.

But on top of all of that, and most important to fans, is how the games are affected on the field. And while there's only a very small sample size -- one week of the preseason -- it's more than enough to prove the point this nonsense needs to end. Now.

Mistakes and gaffes have been so numerous in just one week, it would be impossible to list them all here. Instances of penalties called on wrong players, not moving down markers and misinterpretation of rules have become tragically comical in short order.

At the conclusion of the Giants-Jaguars game last Friday, the Giants had the ball with time running out, trying to get into field-goal range for a potential game-winning kick. The Giants were called for a penalty, and under that scenario, a 10-second runoff should have been assessed and the game should have been over.

I -- and everyone else on the sports desk at the New York Post that night -- knew the rule. The commentators broadcasting the game knew the rule. But the officials, who huddled for several long minutes, didn't, and gave the Giants one more play. They didn't score, but imagine if they had ... and it had been a regular-season game against, say, the Cowboys ... on national TV.

"I actually heard one of the refs (say) he'd only reffed glorifies high school games, which I don't even know what that means," the Giants' Victor Cruz told my New York Post colleague, Paul Schwartz. "I just want to make sure (the officials) have the best interest of the players at heart and they know what they're doing out there, because there were a few instances where there were some iffy calls made and there were some things that were ... out there.

"Sometimes you could see them being a little flustered at times ... like they called a holding call on the returner when he was returning a punt. That was probably the most mind-boggling one to me. We just want to make sure we get the refs back out there and out there making the right calls."

Don't we all.

Then there is the issue of player safety, obviously a major concern of the league's rank and file.

"Everybody says the preseason is at one speed and once you get up to regular season the speed picks up and it goes to the next level," Bears punter and player rep Adam Podlesh told ESPN. "That is one thing that basically all these refs that are officiating our games haven't experienced ... That's the concern for the players: Are they going to be able to keep up with the speed of the game and are they going to make the right calls that are going to make the players feel safe?"

The regular NFL officials have, and would -- all the reason the league needs to end the insanity ... as soon as possible. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu will get another chance

Being cynical and being a journalist goes hand in hand. You can throw being jaded in there, too, while we're at it. The point is, after a while, there's very little that's shocking or surprising to the trained ear or eye. 

And then there's what happened early Friday afternoon. 

It was already going to be a busy sports weekend; the climax of the Olympics, pennant races heating up, NFL preseason openers and the PGA Championship were all vying for out attention, so the thunderbolt out of Baton Rouge, La., on Friday, when LSU announced Heisman Trophy candidate and star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu -- who you probably know as "Honey Badger" -- had been dismissed from the football team for what the school called "a violation of team and university rules."

It has been widely reported Mathieu's dismissal was due to his failing a drug test for the second time -- he was suspended one game last season, reportedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana.

In New York, college football is a tough sell; we're way too enmeshed with our nine professional sports teams to have much time or engagement left for what in other parts of the nation -- particularly the South -- is akin to religion. The Mathieu story was underplayed in the Metropolitan area as a result.

But this is a huge story, and not just because one of the best players in the country will no longer be playing for one of the best teams in the country. It's also about the marketing and future of a player perhaps recognized more for his persona than his abilities on the field.

If you want a catchy nickname, it helps to have one associated with what can be best described as an offbeat, unorthodox nature video spoof that went viral (google "youtube honey badger" if you somehow have yet to be exposed to it). One line from the video, "Honey badger don't care," then spun off on its own trajectory, and is now splashed on T-shirts, hats and other apparel.

It seemed a given that one day Mathieu would reap the benefits of such exposure -- but  there's nothing to say that still can't happen; critics point to his small stature (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) being a barrier to a future in the NFL, but he was an explosive performer on special teams, and his ability to run back punts could make him, say, the next Devin Hester.

All of that is on hold now. NCAA rules state a player dismissed from an FBS program must sit out a year before transferring and playing for another FBS team. But Mathieu could transfer to an FBC (Division I-AA) school and play immediately, which is why Mathieu has already visited McNeese State, located in Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles from New Orleans.

Such a move would remove Mathieu from the national consciousness and big-program media coverage for the moment, but many all-time NFL greats have come from small schools, including Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) Steve McNair (Alcorn State) and Phil Simms (Morehead State). And there are a host of current NFL players that have made the jump from unheralded programs, including Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), Miles Austin (Monmouth), Jared Allen (Idaho State) and Pierre Garcon (Division III Mount Union).

At least one person thinks Mathieu's odds are still pretty good -- his now former coach at LSU, Les Miles.

"I think Tyrann has a unique strength," Miles told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I really think this could be a redirect that will benefit him greatly. I think he can accomplish  all the goals he set for himself. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be doable."

And perhaps playing in a more understated and low-pressure environment would make Mathieu realize he has a second chance, a gift to make this right in the end. And there's nothing cynical or jaded about that.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why we love the U.S. women's soccer team

Everybody can get into a good story. We voraciously download them on our Kindles and Nooks (or actually crack open a real book) and spend untold hours at the movies watching them unfold before our eyes. We wait anxiously for the next installment of our favorites, eagerly anticipating the twists and turns that elevate or befall our heroes and heroines.

As if on cue, there's a huge drama taking place at the London Olympics, one we've seen before, and one we hope has a slightly different ending than the last installment.

Like an old friend you've lost touch with for a while, the U.S. women's soccer team is banging on our doors again, much the same way they did a year ago, when they became the top sports story in the nation, when they reached the World Cup final against Japan. I remember staking out a stool in a jam-packed sports bar in New York to watch that game, which the "Drama Queens" ultimately lost (I highlighted the event on this very blog last July).

And like a Hollywood sequel, here we are again: Hope, Abby, Alex and the rest of our old pals are back, this time in the Olympic gold-medal game, set for Thursday, against -- wouldn't you know it -- Japan. You can hear the movie preview now:

"In a world where (doesn't every one of them start that way?) redemption leads to a second chance ..."

It might be tough to come up with an ending more dramatic than Monday's semifinal victory over Canada, when Alex (Morgan ... you mean you didn't know?) scored that amazing goal with time running out in the second overtime to secure the victory. That, after Megan (Rapinoe, but you didn't need me to tell you that) tied the game on a controversial indirect kick after the Canadian goalkeeper was called for delay of game, holding the ball too long.

Such territory is familiar for this team. And it's a place we can't wait to go to with them, to be there for the whole ride, making sure we don't miss a moment.

"I'm really happy that Alex Morgan's on my team," Abby (Wambach ... duh!) told NBC. "I think I told her I was in love with her in the dog pile we had.

"Even when they scored their third goal, there was something in me that knew that we had more, that we could give more. I don't know what that means, quite honestly. I don't know if it's just confidence until the end, but this team has a belief in itself, even when the going gets tough."

Beside the obvious drama, what makes this particularly appealing is this hard-working, driven, inspired group of young women aren't constantly in our faces, self-promoting, wondering in public why they can't sell out American stadiums for their pro soccer games -- think the opposite of Geno Auriemma. Instead, they're content to stop by every year or so and spend some quality time with us, giving us something to remember and reminisce about until their next visit, whenever that may be. We're fine with that, and so are they.

Pretty enlightening, during an Olympics that quite frankly has turned off a lot of people with a steady stream of controversies and scandals -- and no, we didn't forget our friend Hope's tweets likening the Olympic Village to a brothel. Still, you can bet these ladies won't be crashing their bikes on purpose, bribing officials or peeing in anyone's pool anytime soon.

"This is what we're about," Abby said. "This is what we've been working for since the day we lost to Japan in the World Cup final. We know it's not going to be easy. We didn't anticipate a game like this but we're willing to deal with whatever's thrown at us. We stuck it out until the end."

Which implores all of us to do the same.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Is Bobby Valentine out of lifelines in Boston?

Bobby Valentine has many claims to fame. He loves wrap sandwiches -- so much so, he says he's the one who invented them. He loves to dress up in disguise, as he once did as manager of the Mets, when he donned a fake mustache and glasses and sat in the dugout after being ejected from a game. And he apparently loves to make cameo appearances in video reports, as he did this week at Fenway Park (above), when the Red Sox manager appeared behind the shoulder of The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy and shouted, "It's not true, I'm not trying to get fired, folks! It's not true! It's not true!"

Whether he is or he isn't, conventional wisdom seems to be indicating Valentine's tenure in Boston may not last much longer. And if that's the case, it would mark another claim to fame for one of sports' most polarizing figures -- for the first time in his managerial career, he would not last even one season; having managed the Texas Rangers for eight years and the Mets for seven.

This week's video rant has been the latest Valentine incident in a season full of them.

* In April, he got into a public feud with Kevin Youkilis, saying the popular third baseman wasn't "as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason." Youkilis, who said he was "surprised" and "confused" by Valentine's attack, was soon dealt to the White Sox. Valentine refused to let it go; in July, he told NESN, "The comment I made early, he made a big deal out of, and I don't think he ever wanted to get over it."

* Not long after that, Will Middlebrooks, Youkilis' replacement, had a rough inning in the field and made a couple of errors. Valentine greeted him to the dugout with, "Nice inning, kid." An unnamed person went to management to complain, and the incident probably would not even have been reported if Valentine did not mention it himself during a WEEI radio interview. Valentine went on to say he took Middlebrooks aside afterward and gave him a pep talk, and in a sarcastic tone, used words like "dreadful" and "mortally wounded" to describe the tone of the "unnamed person" who blew the whistle.

* In the wake of that incident, Valentine was taken to task by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who said on WEEI he would have "taken a swing" had Valentine made a similar remark to him, and added he thinks the Valentine era in Boston will end "like Mount Vesuvius." When introduced at Fenway Park upon being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame Saturday night, Schilling got a standing ovation.

* Last week, former Red Sox manager Terry Francona showed up in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and held court with at least a half-dozen players. Valentine had no problem with that, but it underscores how Francona is still revered by the Red Sox -- and you can bet their relationship with Valentine came up in that conversation. For his part, Francona apologized to Valentine, who said it was "no big deal."

Schilling says none of this will end well, and actually spoke of Valentine's job in the past tense.

"Bobby is just unique -- he's different," Schilling told WEEI. "And he runs and beats to a different drummer. I just didn't think the matchup of players and this club and him was going to fit, it was going to work, and I don't think he ever got a chance from a lot of the guys ... I can't imagine given the personalities involved on all sides that this thing just kind of wanders away in the evening, especially with the fans here."

And if that's the way it goes down, Valentine will have another claim to fame, and plenty of time to conjure up new sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Athletes need to think before they tweet. Yeah, right.

There are a lot of things you can do with 140 characters. You can tweak one of the best-known players in the history of your sport. You can go off on a racist, offensive rant about people in your country. You can go on a racist, offensive rant about people from other countries.

And that's just after the first three full days of the Olympic Games in London.

Let's recap, shall we?

First, Hope Solo, the erstwhile America's Darling, morphed into a tweet twit when she called out NBC commentator Brandi Chastain for her analysis during an early-round U.S. women's soccer match in London. Solo thought Chastain was, well, chastising Team USA's play a little too vigorously, saying Chastain should stop criticizing Solo's and the Americans' play "until you get more educated."

"Its 2 bad we cant have commentators who better represents the team&knows more about the game@brandichastain!"

This is the same Chastain who only scored the most significant goal in U.S. women's soccer history to win the 1999 World Cup and raise the sports bra to the national consciousness.

Then there's the case of Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou, who on the eve of the biggest moment of her life -- competing in the Olympics -- chose to make a "joke" loosely related to the Greek Olympic team being away for a couple of weeks:

"With so many Africans in Greece ... At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!"

Stay classy, Athens. This from an athlete representing a country regarded as the home of the modern Olympics. The Greek Olympic Committee made its own subsequent statement, kicking Papachristou off the team "for statements contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement."

The die had clearly been cast, a warning shot across the bow to any other tormented soul in the Olympic Village who might have been thinking about casting similar aspersions toward some other religious, ethnic or opinion-impaired group or person.

But Michel Morganella, a soccer player from Switzerland  -- Switzerland! -- didn't get the memo.

After a 2-1 loss to South Korea, in the true Olympic spirit of sportsmanship, Morganella took to his Twitter feed and banged out this gem, a rough translation courtesy of

"I will smash all the Koreans, go burn all of you, bunch of retards."

The Swiss have never been to war in their history, but there's a first time for everything.

Olympic athletes aren't alone in their ignorance. Amar'e Stoudemire of the Knicks got into hot water last season for making an anti-gay slur in response to a criticizing fan. Rio Ferdinand, who plays for Manchester United, recently was disciplined by the Football Association for a racially-insensitive tweet toward an opponent. And on and on.

But there is hope the insanity can be stopped. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis -- who had to deal with the antics of the twitter-happy artist formerly known as Chad Ochocinco -- has banned his team from tweeting during training camp, a move other teams in the NFL and other sports should take notice of.

"I don't see how tweeting is going to help us win a football game," Lewis told Yahoo! Sports. "It's not best for our football team to be involved in that. It's best that we just take care of ourselves and not announce what we're doing or not doing, or who did this or who did that, and commenting on what's going on in other sports. Let's be football players."

Or at the very least, think, and look both ways before crossing the tweet.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien fighting to keep his team together

Like the song says, you have to go through hell before you get to heaven. And Bill O'Brien, the new head football coach at Penn State, can surely relate.  To an extent, he knew -- sort of -- what he was getting into when he accepted the position in January to succeed the iconic Joe Paterno as the head of one of the nation's best known and most successful programs, in the wake of Jerry Sandusky being found guilty of child abuse and Paterno summarily being sacked for "not doing enough."

But that was before the Freeh Report, the removal of Paterno's statue outside Beaver Stadium and the subsequent unprecedented sanctions leveled at Penn State by the NCAA. Suddenly, there would be no bowl games in the Nittany Lions' immediate future, along with a significant loss of scholarships, and -- perhaps the most damaging punishment to O'Brien and his new staff -- the ability of current Penn State players to transfer to other schools and play immediately, without losing any eligibility.

Predictably, the vultures are already circling. USC coach Lane Kiffin, perhaps most out front among the scavengers, has reportedly met with Penn State running back Silas Redd, one of Penn State's best players. According to a report in USA Today, coaches and representatives of rival Big 10 schools have been camped out in parking lots at Penn State, openly and unabashedly recruiting.

Whether such practices are ethical would make for a rousing debate; college football is a huge money-maker, and programs routinely pit themselves against others to draw the country's best talent. On the other hand, is it morally wrong to be in the open about decimating another school's team, especially given the unspeakable events that got us to this point?

O'Brien was asked by USA Today if, upon taking the Penn State job, he had spoken to other coaches whose programs had faced discipline from the NCAA -- as Kiffin had at USC. And O'Brien's reply was telling:

"It is hard to consult with coaches who have dealt with significant sanctions if they are recruiting your players," O'Brien said. "I'm not going to consult (with them)."

O'Brien told USA Today if the situation were reversed, he would never think to be such a plunderer.

"They didn't choose my school in the first place," O'Brien said of putting himself in the cleats of others.

O'Brien will be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recruiting for the next four years, and likely beyond until the program can be relevant again, but his main focus is holding onto the players he has, and the newcomers who already have committed to the Nittany Lions.

"I want everybody to understand -- our fans, everybody involved with this program -- what is going on with these student-athletes right now," he told ESPN. "They're under tremendous pressure. I'm just concerned about taking care of my kids who play for me. I'm concerned about being there with them and doing the best to protect them. They don't want to go anywhere else."

For his part, O'Brien is saying all the right things; this week, several key recruits reiterated their commitment to the program, including Christian Hackenberg, a highly-regarded quarterback.

Hackenberg told that he and five other recruits "went up to Coach O'Brien's office and told him we are going to stay committed. We believe in Coach O'Brien and his staff."

Employing circle-the-wagon, us-against-them mentalities is standard operating procedure in coaches' playbooks, and always has been. O'Brien is right to employ such strategy -- anything to rally the troops and keep them focused ... and keep them in Navy Blue and White.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ichiro Suzuki's strange day ends as a Yankee

Imagine waking up in the morning, getting ready to go to work at the same place you've been for more than 11 years. You're an established, senior member of your firm, known all around the business world for what you've accomplished through hard work, longevity and an unorthodox approach.

Your company, once successful, has fallen on lean times, pushing you to do the unthinkable: look for a new job at a bigger, glitzier Fortune 500 firm. Negotiations move quickly, you get the offer and you take the job. And your first assignment representing your new company is to attend a business meeting trying to win a new client in a conference room in the same building where you've always worked, competing for new business -- against your old firm. 

That's not too much different than the experience of Ichiro Suzuki, the longtime fixture of the Seattle Mariners who on Monday was traded to the New York Yankees -- who just happened to be in town, playing the Mariners at Safeco Field later that night.

He had to turn in a strange direction, weirdly walking away from the familiar Mariners clubhouse, toward a new beginning in a different room, the gray "NEW YORK" uniform hanging in an empty locker, with the unfamiliar No. 31 on the back.

And then, once the game began, honoring the crowd that showed up to honor him by bowing in reverence, then promptly, in his first at-bat wearing the suit of the Evil Empire, lashing a single to center field. 

Life goes on. 

"When I imagined taking off a Mariner uniform, I was overcome with sadness," Ichiro said through his translator at a press conference before the game to announce the trade, which Ichiro had requested. "It has made this a very difficult decision to make."

He has played in 10 All-Star Games and has won 10 Gold Gloves in the Mariners outfield, but at 38 clearly is not the same player we are accustomed to seeing. His .261 batting average is a far cry from his career .322, light years from his .372, which won him the AL batting crown in when he led the AL in batting in 2004, and the .350 he batted in his rookie season as a 27-year-old in 2001, after a successful career in his native Japan.

“When I spent time during the All-Star break to think,” Ichiro said, “I realized that this team has many players in the early 20s. And I began to think, I should not be on this team next year, when I thought about the future of the team. And I also started to think about the desire to be an an atmosphere that I could have a different kind of stimulation than I have now. If that were the case, it would be the best decision for both parties involved, that I would leave the team as soon as possible. I have made this decision."

Ichiro then allowed himself to get excited by the prospects of going to the Yankees, who just happen to have the best record in baseball.

"I'm going from having the most losses to a team having the most wins," he said. "So it's been hard to contain my excitement in that regard."

"Ichiro is a rock star," said new teammate Alex Rodriguez, who would know. "New York is going to fall in love with him."

Especially now that he has a new pinstriped suit in his wardrobe.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why Penn State escaped the NCAA's "death penalty"

The word from the NCAA has come down, and it's very, very bad news for the Penn State football program, including:

* A four-year ban from bowl games.

* All wins from 1998 to 2011 vacated -- which means Joe Paterno's career coaching wins fall from 409 to 298, and the Nittany Lions will lose six bowl championships and two conference titles.

* A $60 million fine, specifically intended to create an endowment to "external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims," and specifically not to aid programs at Penn State.

* A reduction of 20 scholarships for each of the next four years.

* A five-year probation, under which Penn State will be subject to an athletic integrity monitor to be chosen by the NCAA.

One factor that will have an immediate and even more-crippling effect on the Penn State program is that current scholarship players will be allowed to transfer and play at new schools immediately, without losing a year of eligibility.

The effect on the program will be profound for the foreseeable future. With its scholarships cut in half for four years and current players allowed -- if not encouraged -- to leave and play elsewhere, new coach Bill O'Brien and his staff will have a daunting and near-impossible task of attracting and signing recruits to join a decimated program that realistically has no shot at being even close to competitive in the Big Ten for a long time. Eight-to-10 years before the Nittany Lions' next winning season is a conservative estimate.

"I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead," O'Brien said in a statement. "But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes."

There were those who said the expected sanctions would be worse than the NCAA's "death penalty," and that nuclear option -- which would have shut down the program entirely for one year -- would have been preferable. And they may be right.

But in announcing the penalties Monday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert said while considerable thought and discussion had been given to such a measure,  the committee decided against it due to the harm such a sanction would have caused to "innocent people" who had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky's crimes and the ensuing silence from Paterno and the school's administration detailed in the Freeh Report -- including current Penn State players, opposing Big Ten teams and schools and people who make a living from Penn State games (stadium workers, concessionaires, area hotels, restaurants, etc.).

And in the wake of a scandal and coverup that violated the lives and well-being of countless innocent victims, isn't that entirely right and appropriate?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

At Penn State, darker days ahead

On Sunday, the most symbolic act of the post-Joe Paterno era at Penn State took place when the statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium was taken down by workers and relocated in storage somewhere inside the stadium -- a slightly different scenario than the above cartoon, published in the Columbus Dispatch.

Better they should box it up in a plain pine package and ship it to the warehouse at the end of the last Indiana Jones movie, where it can gather dust next to the Ark of the Covenant.

The Paterno apologists and zealots notwithstanding -- and there are still lots of them out there -- will probably scream about this or hold candlelight vigils, but the sensible and sensitive among us all agree this is something that had to happen, as the Penn State community is still trying to wrap its collective head around the alleged unspeakable and horrific acts by the doomed-to-die-in-prison Jerry Sandusky, and what the Freeh Report found to be a massive coverup by Paterno and the school's administration, which took place under the guise of protecting the program from negative publicity.

It's ironic that if Paterno and Penn State officials had acted as they should have (the first rules of crisis management, after all, are to be transparent, admit there's a problem, apologize for it, address it, and make sure it never happens again), There probably would be statues of Paterno all over the country, and not just in State College, Pa.

And because Paterno and his cronies went so far to hide the deep, dark, disgusting truth, it will get much, much darker at Penn State before the sun comes up and the birds begin to sing again. According to a report Sunday on, the NCAA will announce "corrective and punitive measures" against the Nittany Lions program Monday morning. The report said the punishment is expected to include "significant loss of scholarships and loss of multiple bowls."

The report said Penn State is not expected to be handed the NCAA "death penalty" that would have completely suspended the program for a year, but punishment is expected to be so severe, the "death penalty" actually would be a preferred option.

The big picture, of course, is much bigger than all of this. Tearing down statues and crippling a major college football program will not erase the pain and suffering of Sandusky's victims, nor will they immediately put Penn State and its community in a better place. But it's a step, albeit a small one.