Swing and a Miss – January 21, 2013

This is the inaugural “Swing and a Miss” column, which will consist of a few blurbs about sports issues that are on my mind.  Although I intended to begin writing this column when I started the blog, the realities of life intruded.  So, without further ado, here is what is on my mind today.

The NFL Thinks Concussions are Bad . . . Unless They Help a Team Win a Game.  In yesterday’s Ravens-Patriots game, safety Bernard Pollard was flagged after a shoulder-to-helmet hit on Wes Welker because Welker was “defenseless” under the rules.  The hit was not necessarily vicious, but, per the rules, Welker did not “ha[ve] time to protect himself” prior to the hit.  Fast-forward to early in the fourth quarter with the Ravens leading by eight.  During a Stevan Ridley run up the middle, Pollard raced in to tackle Ridley and a helmet-to-helmet hit occurred.  Ridley, who was clearly concussed, immediately went limp, and as he was falling to the ground, the football fell from his hands.  The Ravens recovered the fumble and Pollard was hailed as a hero for “forcing” the fumble.  Not only that, but CBS then ran a highlight film of Pollard injuring Patriot players in prior games.  In other words, CBS was glorifying Pollard for injuring his opponents.

In his Monday Morning Quarterback column, Peter King listed Pollard as his Defensive Player of the Week:

The renowned Patriots basher (Tom Brady‘s knee, Wes Welker’s knee, Rob Gronkowski‘s ankle) did it again with the game on the line Sunday night. With Baltimore hanging on to a 21-13 lead with 13 minutes left and New England driving, running back Stevan Ridley was leveled by Pollard, knocking Ridley woozy and causing him to fumble. Baltimore recovered and four plays later had the insurance touchdown. For the game, Pollard had nine tackles and added a deflected pass. What Alex Rodriguez is to Red Sox fans, Pollard is to Pats fans. “That was the turning point of the game,” John Harbaugh said of the Pollard hit on Ridley. “It was a tremendous hit, football at its finest, as good a tackle as you’re ever going to see.”

I just find this hypocrisy to be laughable.  On one hand, the NFL preaches player safety and wants the public to believe that it is concerned about concussions.  On the other hand, a defensive player is applauded for concussing his opponent and forcing a fumble.  Knocking a player woozy is apparently “[f]ootball at its finest.”  Now, I am not claiming that the hit by Pollard was illegal.  It wasn’t.  But, the fact remains that Pollard is being praised for concussing another player.  Ridley did not fumble because the hit jarred the ball loose or because Pollard stripped the football.  Ridley fumbled because he lost consciousness and lost the ability to control his arms.

If the NFL were really serious about limiting concussions, it would create a new rule that a player cannot lose a fumble due to being concussed.  In other words, if a player drops the football because he was knocked out and lost control of his extremities, then there should not be a recoverable fumble.  In this way, the defense would not be rewarded for concussing an opposing player.  The point is that, as the rules stand now, in addition to stripping the ball or knocking it out, it is perfectly legal to cause a fumble by concussing the opponent.  This seems incongruous with the idea that the NFL is somehow trying to prevent concussions and is worried about the players’ safety.

Player Safety is Not the Only Issue Where the NFL Walks a Fine Line.  The whole concussion issue is all part of the fine line the NFL is trying to walk these days.  The NFL wants to limit concussions in football but at the same time it does not want to take the “he got jacked up” mentality away from the game.  The NFL says that it wants to improve player safety and donates money to concussion research but there are thoughts that the NFL would not want to use any helmets that did not generate the trademark “cracking” sound when opposing players collide.  The counterbalancing of seemingly opposing interests is nothing new for the NFL as the NFL has always walked a similar line with gambling.  The NFL is publicly against illegal gambling  but at the same time it realizes that gambling is one of the primary reasons why the sport is as popular as it is in this country.  The NFL fully understands that gambling and violence are the two major draws for the sport, but is trying to also appease society’s collective conscience on both issues.  The NFL is walking a very fine line indeed.

The Ray Lewis Farewell Tour/Dance-A-Thon Continues.  The best part of the Ravens win on Sunday is that now we all know that the next game will be Ray Lewis’s final game and there will be no more media stories wondering “will this be Lewis’s last game of his career.” The worst part of the Ravens win is that now we all know that the next game will be Ray Lewis’s final game and the “will this be his last game” stories will be replaced by “this is Lewis’s last game” stories.  So, buckle up for the Ray Lewis love-fest that will be coming to a television set near you for the better part of the next two weeks.  We will be inundated with stories about his passion, his leadership, his tenacity, and his work ethic.  NFL players and coaches will be interviewed and they will speak of their admiration for Lewis and the respect they have for him.  Videos of Lewis’s dancing, prancing, and preening before each game, after each tackle, and after each game will be played on endless loops.

Of course, the majority of the stories will not mention Lewis’s involvement in the stabbing death of two people outside of a nightclub in 2000 or the fact that he was originally charged with murder and ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice related to the incident.  There will be no mention of how the white suit Lewis wore the night of the incident  was never found or that Lewis was fined $250,000 by Paul Tagliabue due to the incident.  If the stories do touch upon this subject, it will be portrayed as a “learning experience” or another example of Lewis overcoming adversity.  No reporter will dare ask Lewis a question about the incident because Lewis does not talk about the incident.

Quite frankly, it’s all just a little too much for me to take.  If we are going to praise Lewis for the player he is on the field, shouldn’t the media at least mention the incident in 2000?  Isn’t this all part of Lewis’s history?  I didn’t realize that in a biography you can just gloss over the bad stuff.  I mean, Michael Vick is absolutely vilified for killing dogs.  Plaxico Burress has been shunned by many in the league for shooting himself.  O.J. Simpson‘s legacy is completely tarnished because he was charged with murder.  Somehow, Lewis has escaped similar scrutiny.  Lewis is a great linebacker but that doesn’t mean the fans or the media should simply disregard Lewis’s involvement in a double-murder.  (Or, we can all just watch Ray Lewis ride a raven into the sky.)

The Harbowl.  Don’t worry, though.  If – like me – you are already sick of the Ray Lewis puff pieces, at least we have the added pleasure of watching and reading all of the “Harbowl” or “Superbaugh” stories.  While I do think that it’s pretty neat to have two brothers facing off in the Super Bowl, I am petrified of the number of stories that will air on this subject over the next two weeks.  Cracker Jack teams of investigative reporters will  undoubtedly unearth old report cards and interview former grade school teachers.  I know that by the time the actual game comes around I will have been beaten over the head with this story so many times that I will no longer even cringe when the announcers bring up the sibling rivalry during the game.  Instead, I will feel nothing.  By that point, I will be in a complete state of apathy.  What should be a great, feel-good story will be like nails on a chalkboard by Super Bowl Sunday.  Good thing the NFL schedules two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

The Cries to Have the “Rooney Rule” Changed Seem Premature.  In watching the hours of pregame programming before yesterday’s football games, I heard many pundits address the Rooney Rule, which requires all teams to interview at least one minority candidate prior to hiring a new head coach, and the likelihood that this rule will be altered in the offseason.  The impetus for the potential changes is the fact that no minority coaches were recently hired despite the numerous head coaching vacancies.  From what I understand, no team violated the Rooney Rule.  So, what would the new rule require?  Interviewing two minority candidates?  Forcing teams to hire at least one minority coach every 10 years?  Requiring the teams that do not hire a minority head coach to have 40% of the other coaches be minorities?  Fine a team when it does not hire a minority as the head coach?

This seems like a bit of an overreaction to me.   Leslie Frazier, Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin, and Ron Rivera are all currently minority head coaches.  The previous head coaches in Oakland (Hue Jackson), Chicago (Lovie Smith), Indianapolis (Jim Caldwell), San Francisco (Mike Singletary), Cleveland (Romeo Crennel), and Tampa Bay (Raheem Morris) were all minority head coaches.  The fact that a minority was not hired during this cycle of firings/hirings is not evidence that the Rule needs to be tweaked.  The point of the Rooney Rule was not to force owners to hire minorities; it was to ensure that minorities had a fair chance to be considered for a head coaching job.

Stan Musial and Earl Weaver Were Both Baseball Legends.  Both Stan “The Man” Musial and Earl Weaver passed away over the weekend.  Both were legendary figures in the sport of baseball and should be remembered for their contributions to the game.

Aside from having mind-blowing statistics, Musial was the rare professional athlete who was rightly idolized.  He married his high school sweetheart and remained married to her for 71 years.  He missed the entire 1945 season to serve in the United States Navy.  There were no scandals surrounding Musial, and I’ve never read an article disparaging Musial.  In today’s society where parents caution their children against idolizing or looking up to professional athletes, the idea that a professional athlete could actually be a role model seems foreign.  Yet, Stan Musial was a role model.  In fact, he was the role model, and, quite sadly, there will likely never be another true role model like Stan the Man.

To the uninformed, Earl Weaver may appear to be an archetype of the “old-school” manager.  The managers who fought with umpires and played their hunches.  Indeed, many people misconstrue Weaver’s famous philosophy ( “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer”) as an indication that Weaver was not a strategist or a “thinking-man’s” manager.  Weaver, however, was probably ahead of his time.  He was one of the first managers to utilize statistics to justify a platoon.  His philosophy about the “three-run home run” was a testament to his theory that outs are the most precious commodity in baseball (a philosophy which should sound familiar to anyone who read Moneyball). Weaver exploited a loophole in the Designated Hitter rule, as he would routinely write his previous day’s starting pitcher in as the DH and would then pinch-hit for the pitcher with a batter based on the situation.  This resulted in MLB baseball creating a rule that the starting DH must bat at least one time (unless the opposing team changes pitchers before the DH’s first at-bat).  Weaver was every bit a “thinking-man’s” manager.  He just happened to also hate umpires.

Why Would Anybody Want to Listen to Tiki Barber‘s Radio Show?  So, CBS has a new national sports radio station based out of New York City.  The new morning show (dubbed “TBD in the AM”) features Dana Jacobson (last seen on – gulp – ESPN’s First Take), Brandon Tierney (longtime sports radio host), and Tiki Barber (former New York Giant running back and wife dumper).  The decision to hire Barber at all – let alone as a co-host of a morning show – simply baffles me.

Let’s look at Tiki Barber’s qualifications:

  • He was an above-average running back for the New York Giants from 1997-2006.
  • Despite the facts that Tom Coughlin (the Giants head coach) corrected Barber’s fumbling problems and that Barber enjoyed his best years under Coughlin, Barber publicly criticized Coughlin on numerous occasions (after a playoff loss in 2005, after a regular season loss in 2006, before his final game in the NFL, and immediately upon retiring).
  • After publicly announcing his retirement during the 2007 season, Barber retired to pursue a career in broadcasting as a television personality.
  • Barber’s first act as a “personality” was to publicly criticize Giants quarterback Eli Manning for his lack of leadership skills.  Manning ignored the criticism and promptly led the Giants to a Super Bowl victory.  (Good call, Tiki.)
  • In 2007, Barber wrote a memoir entitled: Tiki: My Life in the Game and Beyond, which almost no one read.
  • Beginning in 2007, Barber was a correspondent on NBC’s The Today Show and an analyst on Football Night in America.  By 2009, Barber was no longer used as a correspondent and his appearances as a football analyst dwindled.  It was widely reported that NBC executives found Barber cocky and impersonal.   His contract was not renewed when it expired in May 2010.
  • In 2010, Barber left his wife of eleven years (with whom he had two sons) and who was pregnant with twins.  Barber dumped his pregnant wife for a 23 year-old NBC intern named Traci Lynn Johnson.
  • In 2011, it was reported that Barber and Johnson would hide out in Barber’s agent Mark Lepselter’s attic so his affair would not become public.  Barber compared his situation to Anne Frank attempting to hide from Nazis during World War II (“[I]t was like a reverse Anne Frank thing”).
  • In March 2011, Barber attempted a comeback in the NFL that was “not about the money” even though it was completely about the money.  No team signed Barber.
  • In 2012, Barber founded Thuzio.com, a company that permits fans to pay money to hang out with famous and not-so-famous professional athletes.  For example, for $500 you can eat lunch with Tiki or for $3,000 you can have Tiki attend “your birthday, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, or anniversary party.”

Based on Tiki Barber’s track record recounted above, I again pose the question:  Why would anybody want to listen to this man?  What about Barber’s history made the CBS executives think, “I really think the public wants more Tiki Barber and would be very interested to know what a jerk like that has to say about sports?”  What audience is CBS hoping to attract? New York Giants fans don’t even like Barber.  I certainly have no desire to ever listen to Tiki Barber talk about anything, ever.  Based on the early comments from listeners, it does not appear that many others do either.

Martin Luther King, Jr.  In honor of Martin Luther King Day, here is one of my favorite MLK quotes:  “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. ”

Just 22 days until Yankee pitchers and catchers report . . . .