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 deadspin.com:

"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 Pennlive.com 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 ESPN.com, 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.