Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thoughts on a Perfect Season

I am sure you've read about it in your imaginary newspapers -- the Colts pulled their starters and lost against a very motivated Jets team last Sunday. This ended the Colts' run at an undefeated season and deeply disappointed Broncos fans who could have seen their team lock up a post-season birth if the Jets had lost.

We know how Mercury Morris feels. Here is how I feel about a couple of particular angles on the whole perfect season matter.

First, it's already been done. The Dolphins did it in the 14 game season of 1972 and capped it off with a Super Bowl victory. The Patriots did it in the 16 game season of salary-cap and free agency football in 2007. It's not like this is an accomplishment never seen before.

Second, one of the reasons it is hard to accomplish a perfect season is because, given the opportunity to rest players near the end of the season, any coach would be crazy not to do it. The goal after all is to win the championship. It is pretty clear that the big story of 2007 was the Giants winning the Super Bowl not the Patriots having a good record in the regular season.

Third, who is to say the Jets would not have won that game against the Colts starters? Who is to say the Colts won't lose (or wouldn't have lost) next week against the unpredictable Bills in cold and snowy Buffalo? It is a setting where finesse teams often struggle. Those who assume the perfect season was in hand prior to "the benching of starters" must not follow the NFL very closely.

Finally, it is unknown if resting starters is better or worse than playing them right through the season in terms of how it affects post-season outcomes. I hear many pundits expoundeing their views but, other than Mercury Morris, there are no real experts on the matter

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Fountain of Mirth

I went skiing today and extended an amazing streak that I think may last for the rest of my life.

This streak began when I was a kid and has marched forth, unbroken, through every single day of skiing I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy. No matter where I am skiing, no matter who I am with, no matter what the weather or the conditions of the snow, at some point during the day, I will chuckle aloud while riding the chairlift. I always try to stifle this outward expression so as not to give the impression that I am a crazy old guy riding the chair alone and laughing at his own thoughts but I never succeed and the streak persists.

Here is why I laugh.

Riding the chair lift always conjures a childhood memory of riding the ski lift with my brother Rick and at least one or two other relatives (I think it was brother Tom and Cousin Jeff). Rick was a meticulous youngster and couldn't seem to resist the opportunity, afforded by a long ride up the mountain, to polish the lenses on his aviator sunglasses.

On the particular day when my streak commenced, Rick began the chair ride by securely stowing his poles under one leg. This allowed him to free up his hands for other tasks without dropping a pole from the chair. He also removed and safely clipped his gloves to his ski parka ensuring maximal dexterity for the polishing task. He carefully procured a neatly folded cloth from a zippered pocket, gently removed his shiny, wire-rimmed sunglasses and set about examining them from many angles, looking for smudges and streaks to remove. So far, not very funny.

About a minute or so into the operation I recall hearing a soft but sharp "pling" sound and I caught the sight of one green tinted aviator lens flipping through the air below us and disappearing beneath a pock mark in the snow. That's not funny either. Poor guy loved his sunglasses, probably spent a fair chunk of his net worth on them, and now they were worthless.

The funny part was Rick's reaction. Or, to be more specific, his non-reaction. With the detached look of a bored man performing a repetitive task, he calmly pressed the frame of the sunglasses against the steel bar of the chair lift and twisted them many times around the bar (with the second lens "plinging" away in the process). While his face was void of all emotion, his hands worked with the strength of a man whose rage was barely contained. While we all died laughing, Rick never even acknowledged that anything had happened. He may be in denial to this day.

Now, whenever I ride a chairlift, I remember that day and it always make me laugh. Just like it did today.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Stigma of Stigma

Something strange is happening to stigma. It appears to be under attack from capitalism.

In the good old days, getting oneself into an embarrassing predicament was potentially stigmatizing and it kept many people from making dumb choices or from acting with unacceptable degrees of short sightedness or self-interest. Sure, stigma has always had certain downsides but it has also kept many people on a straight and narrow social path and has played a valuable role in society by punishing certain behaviors that are frowned upon by society.

For example, it used to be that over-consumption and reckless financial decisions that might lead to personal bankruptcy were discouraged by the potential embarrassment of such a consequence. The stigma of personal bankruptcy was something to be avoided. Now, I hear advertisements all day long stating that "bankruptcy can happen to anyone"; I guess it's just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The prevailing attitude seems to be "go ahead and buy that boat, if you can't make the payments, just declare bankruptcy and move on." Nothing to be embarrassed about -- there are many law firms and financial planning agencies, driven by their profit motives, ready to help you file the paperwork.

I know we have endured quite a rough economic period and that some people have been caught short-handed despite their adherence to a fairly conservative financial strategy. Nonetheless, I worry about how much worse it could get if declaring bankruptcy really becomes something with no personal responsibility nor shame attached.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Freedom of Geezers

I am crotchety beyond my years; I can't wait until I hit 80 and enter officially into geezerdom. Then, because it will be expected and accepted, I'll be able to fully express myself in public without really embarrassing my family. (Plus, I'll be able to back up my car without looking behind me and the people behind me will just scatter and shake their heads.)

For now, I guess I'll just have to keep my opinions to myself until I can blog about them. Like right now.

This week, I have attended two holiday concerts to see each of my two daughters perform with their classmates at the school where they are learning all about branded clothing. The community of students, their siblings, and their parents are very involved in the daily routine of school with many volunteers, constant activities, and a saturating presence of "family" at all times on the school campus. There are many opportunities to interact with other families which leads to the pretense of social cohesion and strong bonds of support throughout the community.

All it takes to break the pretense, however, is an event like a school concert with first-come first serve seating. Obviously, in such a zero-sum situation, claiming a good seat for oneself is akin to denying a good seat to one's friendly neighbor. According to my observations, that perspective did not seem to be prevalent amidst the early morning stampede of self-interested parents with video recording devices. The naked aggression I witnessed at each of these two concerts (staged, by the way, to spread holiday cheer and good will toward men), was frankly embarrassing.

At the conclusion of each concert, parents mingled and enjoyed holiday treats and generally restored the sense of community that is so obviously fabricated. Participating politely in the after party was hard for my inner geezer.

Geezers don't tolerate such social hypocrisy in silence; they prefer to point it out. I am looking forward to the day when I can do that and the negative repercussions of my honesty will accrue only to me.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Noble, Stupid, or Cowardly?

Many sports fans have heard the news that University of Washington QB Jake Locker has decided to forgo the NFL draft and return to play his senior year in college. Based on the commentary I've heard, opinions about his decision have more or less polarized with some calling his decision a "noble commitment to finishing his college career" and others calling it "so stupid he might be related to Ryan Leaf ". Let's explore those arguments.

The "noble" argument is buttressed by our national penchant for valuing commitment to a chosen endeavor. But let's not kid ourselves here, to whom and to what did Locker commit? Certainly not to the University as it is widely understood that big time football programs use athletes to rake in huge revenues, none of which are shared with the athletes who attract those funds. Perhaps he has a commitment to himself or to his family that he will finish his education but that is a deal that can be consummated at any time, it needn't happen next year when the NFL is calling.

The "stupid" argument is built on the fact that he is projected to be taken high in the NFL draft, perhaps as high as #1 overall, where he could expect some $20-$30 million in guaranteed money. For perspective, one could earn a six figure salary for an entire 40 year career and still earn less than $5m cumulatively. We are talking about a boat load of money that will evaporate if he gets injured in his senior year.

While the risk of a serious injury may be on the small side, the risk of playing slightly less spectacularly next year is quite high. After all, it is difficult for an individual in a team sport to perform at a consistently high level in a rapidly changing environment like a college football program. Nonetheless, a down year would have a similar, if less dramatic, impact on his draft prospects. In fact, even a senior year performance that is equally impressive as the junior year he just completed would indicate that he has plateaued and could cause him to drop precipitously in the draft. Falling into the second round or below might mean signing for a measly couple of million dollars. The point is that his stock is as high now as it can go for a college player. No matter how well he plays next year; it can only go down from here.

To these two arguments, I will offer a third perspective: I think he may not have the confidence to take the next step and face the next challenge.

He is a local kid who went to college close to home. He is comfortable in college where he knows he can succeed and meet the challenge. The NFL, on the other hand, represents a great unknown where he may or may not find success. I think his decision may be neither the product of a noble commitment to the University nor of a poor grasp of financial planning; I think he may simply be opting to stay in his comfort zone.

If I were an NFL talent scout (and I should be), this would represent a very big red flag for me when he does enter the draft.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Putting the BS in BCS

Contributed by Auggie
I was once asked by a foreigner, “why do American colleges have sports teams - isn’t the purpose of college to get an education?” This is a good question, and as I searched for an answer I simultaneously tried to discern their objective for asking. Was this an honest attempt to understand American culture, or a sarcastically delivered rhetorical question meant to imply it’s an idiotic tradition? I believe the language barrier scrambled the normal cues and I never did discern the questioner’s true objective. I answered it anyway. I tried sounding educational but smattered in a defensive tone just to cover the sarcastic scenario if that was indeed their angle. I rattled off something about college being an opportunity to experience many aspects of life and grow in different ways, and when sporting was becoming popular college was an ideal environment for young men and women to compete with people of similar interests, ages and skill level, and how it has evolved over the years to where it is now. Blah blah blah.

I still don’t know why the person asked, and I still don’t know the answer, but this much I do know: College football has become far too important to far too many people. I need only to look at the last two weeks for examples to explain my view.

Exhibit A: According to recent reports Congress was set to review and vote on a bill that could potentially end the current BCS (Bowl Championship Series) method of determining a college football national champion and force a playoff system instead. That would be the U.S. congress in case you are wondering. This boggles my mind - if one member of congress wastes 10 seconds on this issue its 10 seconds too much. Just to clarify - its college football!!! I don’t mind paying my fair share of taxes but I was kind of hoping our representatives would focus on other key issues of the day like the ongoing wars, the state of our economy, healthcare, energy etc. - and stop worrying about college football!!! (Italics mean I’m yelling).

Exhibit B: Alabama has cancelled classes for three days because its team will compete in BCS championship game against Texas on January 7th. The message: football is more important than academics. Apologies to the students paying top dollar because they want an education – there will be no refund for the lost days.

Exhibit C: Brian Kelly, the head coach for Cincinnati this past season just accepted the position as Notre Dame’s new head coach. [Quick background: Kelly just coached the Cincinnati Bearcats to an undefeated regular season and they are now preparing to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl. If Texas had not defeated Nebraska last week with a last second field goal – after the referees added one second to the clock at the end of the game - it would be the Bearcats playing the Alabama Class Cancellers – I mean Crimson Tide, for the national title]. So my first thought when I read the news about Kelly was “how will this affect his preparation for the Sugar Bowl?” Silly me, I now understand it will have no effect at all because he left Cincinnati so fast the door didn’t even graze his butt. I realize this example doesn’t exactly fit with the two above; after all, any of us are free to switch jobs whenever we want and employers are free to unceremoniously dump us in similar fashion. We all make decisions that are in our own best interest. But whatever happened to the old 2-weeks-notice rule? You know, common decency. Kelly’s announcement left some of his former players in tears, and why wouldn’t it? They worked hard all year to go undefeated and earn the right to play in one of the biggest bowl games in school history, and he can’t be bothered to hang around a couple more weeks and help finish the deal. Why? Because college football is soooooooo important that he must immediately get to Notre Dame and start laying to groundwork for returning that school to its rightful elite status. In football I mean.

Look, I’m a huge sports fan and usually find myself defending the sports world against naysayers, but college football just needs to simmer down. Of course, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What Ever Happened to Liver?

Does anyone eat liver any more? (Attention foodies, don't reply with anecdotes about foie gras)

When I was growing up, liver was the icon of disgusting food that was good for you. As such, children were required to consume it every now and then. Every kid could relate to the horror of liver night. There were even jokes about it; everyone tacitly understood the scourge of liver.

Seems like liver was always served with spinach. Not sure if that was a tactic for facing all of the unpleasantness in one fell swoop or if it was some evil plot that parents perpetrated on their kids to "build character".

Anyway, I never even hear it mentioned any more. Now I think broccoli holds the mantle of "worst tasting food that must be consumed for its nutritional content".

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Running Up the Score

This is the term they bandy about when one team beats another team by a big margin. Usually, the coach or the team accused of "running up the score" is also accused of showing poor sportsmanship.

If you ask me, poor sportsmanship is rampant but there is no such thing as running up the score. In fact, winning by a lot is akin to that old staple of high character we know as "always doing your best".

I don't know where you imaginary readers live but here on the west coast, we get lots of Pac 10 coverage which means, during football season, we've grown accustomed to seeing USC football teams win by scores like 56-10, and 37-3 on a pretty regular basis. Some say that Pete Carroll and the Trojans have a habit of running up the score.

Before I explain why that does not represent poor sportsmanship, let me share a couple of recent events for those of you who may have missed the news.

Recent Event 1
A couple of weeks ago, USC played Stanford, a University noted for its high academic standards and, consequently, for its unwillingness to admit many top-caliber athletes who do not meet those academic standards. As one might surmise, Stanford's de-emphasis of athletics has put them on the wrong end of many a lopsided USC victory over the years. In their most recent meeting, a surprisingly strong Stanford team led the game 48-21 with about six minutes to play and their coach, Jim Harbaugh, elected to go for a 2-point conversion. Many accused him of poor sportsmanship. I disagree.

Recent Event 2
A week later, USC was leading it's cross-town rival UCLA by a score of 21-7 with about a minute to go. USC had the ball and took a knee on first down intending to run out the clock. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, refusing to concede the game, and having all three of his timeouts in hand, immediately called to stop the clock. On the next play, USC quarterback Matt Barkley chucked a bomb which resulted in a TD and the game ended 28-7. Again, many saw poor sportsmanship in the play call and again, I disagree.

Here's the deal. A key responsibility for a college football coach is to manage the emotions of a group of young males and get them into the right state of mind at the right time. It is a constant challenge to keep them from peaking in frenzy too early in the week and to keep them from sinking too low at any point for any reason. One key to maintaining a healthy level of confidence and competitive will is to instill a winning attitude that carries your own team and intimidates the opposition. This "swagger", as it is often called, is elusive but can be bottled up occasionally if you are ready for the opportunity. Smashing USC in the mouth and going for 2 needless conversion points was a great example of a smart coach seizing a rare opportunity to give his team the kind of attitude that USC teams have used to their advantage for a decade. Harbaugh was not guilty of poor sportsmanship; he was guilty of smart coaching.

Here's another perspective. College football players are essentially auditioning for the NFL and need to do whatever they can to stand out. A coach can't ask them to run at half speed with a big lead because there is too much at stake for them. Similarly, a coach can sit his stars and play the backups but the backups are auditioning to become starters so they can audition for the NFL. Again, he can't ask them to back off.

With regards to Pete Carroll taking a knee on first down and then throwing long on second down, that was perfectly justified. When UCLA called timeout, they stated their intention to call three successive timeouts and, unless USC could get a first down, regain possession of the ball. They forced USC to go for a first down which, as we know, is no easy feat. To do so, offensive coordinators must draw on their entire playbook and take the most likely path depending on what the defense gives them. In this case, it was a long pass.

My bottom line is that being better than your opponent is not a sign of poor sportsmanship, even if you are much, much better. Coaches and players don't spend practice time perfecting mediocre plays designed to let the opposing team save face. They have one attitude, one mentality, one objective, and one level of effort they know how to give.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Just Call Me Murcury

Interesting relationship I've had with Mercury Morris over the course of my life.

He was a prominent member of the powerhouse Dolphins teams in the early 70's when I first became a football fan. I thought he had a cool name and a cool number (22) and I even had a poster of him on my wall that I rotated with others depending on the season and, of course, at the mercy of my whim.

Later, I came to view him as somewhat petty for surfacing every year in the middle of the football season espousing the same tired message. Year after year, when the schedule whittled the teams down to its last undefeated franchise or two, Merc would go on talk radio and glorify the '72 Dolphins while belittling which ever teams happened to be mid-way through an undefeated season.

I always thought he had no argument based on how much easier it was to go undefeated in the "old days" prior to a 16 game season, prior to the salary cap era, and prior to free agency. Math doesn't lie and it is progressively more difficult to stay undefeated as you play more games. Without a doubt, the other changes brought the league a step closer to parity which has also increased the difficulty of staying unbeaten.

A coupe of years ago, when the Patriots were vying for perfection, I came to despise Morris (and to dislike Shula) for his thinly veiled attempts to besmirch the Patriots season as one that had been tainted by cheating. No coach or analyst agreed with that perspective but several former Dolphins players and coaches, panicky about the possibility that their achievement would be eclipsed by a modern team with a tougher challenge, got plenty of air time and had me grumbling at my TV on several occasions.

Now I see two teams (Saints and Colts), both of whom beat the Patriots in the past two weeks, both of whom are well on their way to perfect seasons in this modern environment that I have described as so difficult. In my mind, the Patriots 16-0 performance currently stands alone as a singular achievement. And here is the part that is difficult to admit, I don't want any other teams coming along and etching their names on that particular trophy. In this way, I have a new-found kinship with old 22.

I need to check the attic to see if I can find that old poster.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More Evidence that Modern Pirates are Sissies

I implied as much in my earlier post but now there can be no doubt: modern pirates are sissies.

A couple of weeks ago, the US Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that passes regularly near Somalia, was attacked for the second time in seven months. Imaginary readers may recall that in the first attack, the captain was captured and later rescued. The image of the Navy sharp shooters sailing up to the pirate's rubber raft and picking them off when they bobbed up on a wave should have painted an appropriately wimpy picture. If not, the loud pirate whining in the days that followed surely let the world know that the character of the modern pirate has devolved.

Now we learn, as reported here, that the second attack was repelled by....are you ready? a "high decibel noise device". That's right, scared off by loud noises.

In the future , the image of the scarred-face pirate with a hoop earring, an eye patch, and a gold tooth sailing through the fog on a dark, canon-laden ship will be replaced by the image of wimps in a rubber raft wearing life preservers and ear-muffs. Good thing Hollywood already made a bunch of pirate movies because that genre is heading for oblivion.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Personal Privacy

I recently touched on the topic of privacy without expanding much. That particular blurb was inspired by a story I had heard on NPR about a small village that had posted cameras on the only roads leading into and out of town as part of a plan to thwart auto theft.

Naturally, in that small village, there was an outcry from those citizens who felt victimized by a perceived loss of privacy. Had I written more expansively, I would have pointed out that those same people already have their locations registered if not tracked on a regular basis by the cameras at banks, stores, gas stations, and parking garages. Every time they use a credit or debit card they leave a geographic trail as well as a pattern of consumption. And as we all know, their internet habits form a record that can be mined to assemble a rich and detailed picture of their personal interests and activities.

Most importantly, today's cell phones are like beacons that can be plotted through space and time to reconstruct the owners movements with alarming accuracy. In this respect, a new camera in a tree on the road out of town is hardly an infringement. People just like to cry victim.

I was prompted to come back and write more on privacy because I have heard too many times over the past few days that the people have "a right to know" what happened to Tiger Woods the other day.

No they don't.

The argument is that "he leads a public life" and has "made millions off his fame" so volunteering details is the price he must pay. Actually, having the media dig up details about his private life is the price he must pay, and he has been paying it for his entire adult existence. He needs not volunteer a thing and no one has a right to know.

I understand that people are curious but the claim of a "right to know" is the opposite of the "right to privacy" that began this post. Here's how I see it: First and foremost, we all have a right to privacy. However, we need to be realistic about how most of us have already (voluntarily) undermined those rights by carrying cell phones and using the internet. I think many fear losing a level of privacy that they have probably already forfeited.