Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Unfortunate Rise of the Petulant Golfer

The golfer that curses himself for a duck hook into the woods has been around since the game was invented.

The golfer that curses himself for being 20 feet right of the pin on #12 at Augusta National has been around since 1997.

tiger woods angry
As the golfing media fell over themselves to praise Jordan Spieth – no doubt deserved for a 20-year old contending for The Masters title and a green jacket – I was disappointed. I wanted to root for the kid. I enjoyed his first victory last year. He certainly has the game.

But for four days, Spieth annoyed me by getting mad at himself. We all get mad playing golf. But the guy that yells at himself or tosses his club to the ground when he has a 20-foot birdie putt? I don’t feel the need to root for that guy. That guy needs to get over it.

You want to celebrate a good shot? Go for it. You want to be Adam Scott and scream at Augusta after holing a putt? That’s competitive fire I want to see. You want to moan about a shot slightly off-center? Not interested.

It was appropriate that Spieth was battling Bubba Watson, another player who can do no wrong in the eyes of the golf media. Me? I’m not a Bubba fan.

I grew up going to the Greater Hartford Open, now known as the Travelers Championship. Last year, Bubba squandered away a fourth-round lead in the Travelers and bottomed out with a terrible tee shot at the tricky Par 3 16th hole. How did Bubba react?

By yelling at and blaming his caddie. Yeah Bubba, it was his fault you dunked it in the water. Watch for yourself.

As with most things in golf, everything – good and bad – can be traced to Tiger Woods.

In 1997, golf changed forever when Tiger Woods won the Masters. Other sports have had defining culture changes, from Magic and Bird entering the NBA or the NHL emerging post-lockout with Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and a television partner that cared. But only golf had that one singular moment when nothing would ever be the same.

For people my age and older, there was a time before Tiger. I was 15 before Tiger Woods rocked Augusta. My childhood was spent with golfers that had personalities. Guys like Fuzzy Zoeller making (non-racist) jokes and Chi-Chi Rodriguez becoming Zorro after birdie putts. Golfers that shared actual honest to goodness feelings after tournaments instead of providing rehearsed, robotic answers. They cried. They laughed. They were human beings.

Tiger Woods, by all accounts, is human. He just never acted like it. But when you’re Tiger Woods and winning The Masters by a dozen strokes, people tend to forgive you for your faults.

So as Tiger dominated for a decade, no one cared that he was a robot. Other than Jack Nicklaus and a few old-timers, there were not many that made a stink about Tiger’s course etiquette. We heard the F-bombs and the curse words. It was part of the game.

But for a long time, it wasn’t. Yes, guys got angry, but they did not make a public spectacle after routine shots or merely average shots. Tiger was different in almost every possible way.

We forgave Tiger for the f-bombs. We didn’t worry when he would drop his club mid-swing. We didn’t mind when he would kick a club. It was the price of greatness.

As I watched the Golf Channel briefly Wednesday night, the same forgiveness was shown to Spieth, as Nick Faldo and Tom Watson gave their blessing to his petulant antics.

It was not a luxury afforded to Tiger in 2009 after his world crumbled. His meltdowns were cause for public debate. Here is Tom Watson complaining about such in 2010 – boy, his tune changes when golf needs a new star. Maybe Tiger’s decorum wasn’t good for the game in 2010. But they never were. And it’s now too late.

For Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth and a host of others, Tiger Woods is all they’ve ever known. Spieth was only 3 when Tiger won his first major, which means literally his entire life has been the Tiger Woods era. So is it any surprise that he bitches and moans over okay shots like his idol?

There is a lot of good that Tiger Woods brought to golf. He brought more money, more exposure, more tournaments and more excitement. Is the Phil Mickelson narrative even one-tenth as exciting if not for Tiger Woods? How many fewer kids take up the game if not for Tiger Woods’ 2000 run? Is there even a First Tee initiative?

But with the good comes the bad. Tiger Woods took the post-round clich̩ to a new level Рdoing for golf-speak what Jim Tressel did for coach-speak. He has mastered the art of saying nothing. It works for Tiger Woods. It does not work for others.

Likewise, Tiger became the poster child for the petulant golfer. The guy who drops his club in agony because he has a 30-footer for birdie. The player who yells at wind gusts, blames spike marks for missed putts and grades his round. “Yeah I shot a 68 today with my C+ game, so I’m pretty happy.”

Overall, it’s disappointing.

The beauty of golf is – was? – how the individual nature of the sport lets you express yourself however you want. You could be Payne Stewart and wear knickers. You could be Seve Ballesteros and make birdie from a parking lot. You could be John Daly, grip it and rip it.

The beauty of golf is – was? – that you didn’t have to conform. There was no coach telling you want to do. You played golf as you lived life. It was up to you. Your swing, like a guitarist ripping a solo, was an extension of who you were. You didn’t have to act a certain way.

Instead, golfers have gone the way of NASCAR drivers, robots sent here to move product and collect paychecks.

What do you really know about Jordan Spieth or Matt Kuchar? And no, naming their alma mater doesn’t count.

As the new generation of golfers presses on, they take their cues from Tiger Woods. They will say little in post-round interviews. They will be annoyed easily. They will be tough to root for.

The era of Tiger Woods appears to be over. Welcome to the era of the Petulant Golfer. 

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Monday, April 14, 2014

What is Success for UConn Football in 2014?

On Sunday, an estimated 200,000 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford. On Saturday, an estimated 6,500 turned out for a UConn-related event in Hartford.

The latter was more important.

uconn diaco
On Sunday, downtown Hartford was overrun by a sea of blue and white as the dual basketball champions were lauded during a parade under pristine conditions. The event, much like the UConn faithful taking over Madison Square Garden, felt like a revival.

UConn fans had taken their teams and their championships for granted. In 2004, I covered the dual parade as a daily newspaper reporter. That day was big. Sunday was bigger.

While the national narrative has focused on UConn basketball returning to the elite of the game, the reports of its demise had been vastly exaggerated. The UConn women won the national title last year. The UConn men, despite being banned, would have made the tournament in 2013. UConn fans – and the administration – knew the Calhoun transition would be okay before the 2014 NCAA Tournament tipped off.

But while the UConn community and fans bask in the glow of the sun reflecting off of the mountaintop, there are still the same questions facing its future. While the Big Ten choosing Rutgers has been mocked by many – even the New York Times piled on – it doesn’t change what happened.

Think back to a mere three years ago. The UConn men won the national title. The UConn women made another Final Four, but its quest for a three-peat ended in the semifinals. The UConn football team played in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, that Fiesta Bowl happened just three years ago. It might as well have happened three decades ago.

The UConn basketball brands – regardless of who is coaching – will always resonate nationally. Indiana hasn’t won a title in two decades but Indiana is still Indiana. Ditto for UCLA. Basketball was never the problem.

No, UConn football has held the program back. It is why the ACC chose Louisville. It is why the Big Ten chose Rutgers.

You could make a legitimate case that former UConn AD Jeff Hathaway’s hiring of Paul Pasqualoni was the worst football hire in the history of college football. It was more than the losses – it was the timing and it was the apathy. As the realignment wheel spun, the UConn fans that filled the Rent consistently for Randy Edsall found something else to do.

In October 2011, as Robert Griffin III was embarking on his Heisman campaign, he was asked, "Where was the toughest place to play?" He said UConn!

How did UConn football go from an atmosphere that RG3 put above Texas and Oklahoma to a half-filled, quiet, depressing place?

All of this is why Saturday’s Spring Game for UConn football was the most important event of the weekend. UConn needs to be good again at football. They don’t have a choice. It’s about keeping the school relevant.

Football is getting bigger and bigger and the upcoming four-team college football playoff will only make it bigger. Once the money starts flowing, it will keep getting better – regardless of what is said, it will become an 8-team, then a 16-team playoff, because the money will be too great.

For now, though, what is success for UConn football? How good can they be?

To his credit, new coach Bob Diaco has not shied away from the comparisons to the basketball teams. He has said all the right things about positive energy and how “hot” the UConn brand is for recruiting. He’s made the team part of the campus, whether that was hosting an open practice for students or having his players in pads greet the returning UConn women.

There was the feeling, as Warde Manuel was searching for the next UConn coach, that the whole thing had to be burned down. That is how toxic the Coach Pasqualoni era was. The grumblings from Storrs before last season even started was how the team had turned against him. I witnessed QB Chandler Whitmer and WR Geremy Davis yelling at each other on the sidelines during the Michigan game meltdown. This was a team in disarray.

As Diaco comes in, the UConn team is extremely young – the roster will be littered with sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen because too many players recruited by Pasqualoni either left or weren’t good enough.

The 2014 football season is a long five months away, but defining success is here now. For better or worse, the bar is set extremely high for Diaco because of how bad the program had become and how vitally important success is.

1) Increasing the Season Ticket base
In a perfect world, the head football coach would not have to be a salesman. UConn football does not exist in a perfect world right now. Diaco has made great strides already in promoting the program – now, the university needs to ensure this translates to season tickets.

From the moment Edsall left, the season ticket base eroded. It would have been even worse last year had Michigan not been on the schedule to artificially prop it up as there were more than a few Michigan fans that bought season tickets to ensure they had a seat for that game.

2) Sellouts for BYU and Boise State
It’s either a really good thing or a really bad thing that UConn hosts two name-brand programs in September during the nonconference. The BYU opener is a big one, a Friday night primetime game on ESPN proper. There is no reason why they can’t sell 40,000 tickets for that one.

The Boise State game, well, that will be an indication of where the fanbase is because Boise State, post-Chris Petersen, is not the draw they were four years ago. If UConn loses to BYU by 50, do the fans show up? But a good performance against BYU, and a nice Saturday kickoff against a team even my Mom has heard of, should lead to a good crowd. Diaco seems to understand that they need to engage the fans, and they need to get the fans back to the stadium. They have two nice opportunities to kick off the season.

3) Playing in a Bowl Game
The 2014 UConn schedule was made for a first-year coach. Four of the first five games at home. Only four true road games, as the Army game is being played at Yankee Stadium. Four of the five toughest teams on the schedule – on paper, in April – come to Rentschler Field, with only a road trip to East Carolina looming. The other road trips are to Memphis, Tulane and USF. They miss one of the preseason favorites in Houston.

Simply put, UConn should make a bowl game. Anything less, even a 5-7 season, will be disappointing. The bottom of the American Athletic Conference appears to still be weak enough for UConn to pile up wins – should Memphis, Temple, USF and Tulane be considered unwinnable? Throw in Army and the FCS Stony Brook, and there are six games UConn could be favored in.

uconn mccombs
4) A big win at the Rent, or two
It is very likely that UConn will play its four toughest opponents – BYU, Boise State, UCF and Cincinnati – at home. UConn needs to win one of those games. It would be ideal if they won two of them.

UConn did not have a signature victory in the past three years – the closest being a 2011 dismantling of Rutgers that kept bowl hopes alive and ended Rutgers’ BCS hopes. Of course, UConn followed that up with an embarrassing loss on ESPN to Cincinnati and that was that.

The team needs something to point to when the season is over. If they go 7-5 or 6-6, it would mean even more to point out – yeah, and we had that big win over Boise State or the nice upset over Cincinnati. Basically, UConn hasn’t beaten anyone better than them since 2010 – the only exception being wins over Rutgers in 2011 and 2013.

5) No blowouts
This may be the biggest – UConn cannot get destroyed and demoralized. If they go 6-6, beat the teams they should beat and lose to better teams, I won’t be thrilled. But if those losses are close games, I’ll be encouraged. It is absurd to expect UConn to compete for a Cotton Bowl berth.

But I don’t want to repeat games when I had to turn the TV off or left the Rent before the final whistle. When Maryland, at full strength, could have scored 50 if not for turnovers. When UCF could have hit 70 if they felt like it. When Louisville could win a game they clearly did not care about or show up for.

The culture for UConn football is changing and that’s a good first step.

For 2014 to be successful, the Rent needs to be filled again, the games need to be close again and UConn needs to send the fans home happy again.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Geno Auriemma: The Al Davis of Women’s Basketball

“They said you had to take what the defense gave you. No, we are going to take what we want.” – Al Davis, A Football Life.

“We don’t go into the tournament wanting to survive and advance. We want to beat our opponent so bad that the next round opponent doesn’t even want to play us.” – Geno Auriemma, 2014 NCAA Final pregame.

geno auriemma wins
When I started watching the “A Football Life” documentary on Al Davis a day after the UConn women had dismantled Notre Dame, I was not looking for some grand epiphany about Geno Auriemma’s standing the sports world. There just wasn’t anything good to watch – Wednesday is a brutal night for television.

Then the Al Davis quotes started coming, like the one above. The slogans he coined – Just Win, Baby and Commitment to Excellence – that were aimed at the singular goal of creating a winner. Davis said his goal in life was to create the perfect sports franchise, one that combined the greatness of the New York Yankees with the iconic brand of play that defined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Though Davis became a caricature late in his life, his impact on the game of pro football and the NFL is felt every single day. Heck, if it weren’t for him, who knows if the AFL and NFL merge or if the Super Bowl brand even exists.

On the field, he did things his way. He wanted the possibility of throwing it deep on every down – taken for granted in 2014, yet absolutely mind-blowing in 1964. He wanted his defense aggressive. He wanted to destroy other teams. He had zero issues with being the villain.

As I continued to watch the Davis documentary, the thoughts of Geno kept floating through because the defiance that Davis portrayed in interviews, even late in his life, are present in Geno. Davis operated his Raiders with a chip on his shoulder because he never felt like he got the respect he deserved, despite the championships.

Don’t you get the same feeling about Geno?

Prior to the Notre Dame final, UConn’s Breanna Stewart was named Player of the Year and Notre Dame’s head coach Muffet McGraw didn’t clap. She thought her player should have won – as if no other player in history had been snubbed for an award.

Some coaches would have deflected it. Some coaches would have alluded to a feud. Some coaches are not Geno Auriemma. He firebombed McGraw, Notre Dame and, by proxy, the entire women’s game.

“Nobody knows what it’s like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win an award, everybody gets pissed off. Worst off, they act pissed off because our guys won an award because it’s Connecticut all the time, all Connecticut all the time. People are sick of it. It’s just natural. We live with it 365 days a year. So, if you’re going to come in and try to live in that air then you need to deal with it.”

When I wrote about the greatness of Kevin Ollie, I focused on the X’s and O’s of what he did with a team that appeared in several games to be in trouble. Against Kentucky, for example, they were facing a lineup of future NBA players. Against Florida and Michigan State, they played against teams with supposedly superior front lines. In each game, Ollie made an adjustment to allow his great, but thin, team to take over.

For Geno, he will usually have the more talented team. Now this is not to confirm the national narrative that Geno rolls out the balls and his group of stars simply dominates.

They are coached to perfection by a perfectionist – the “commitment to excellence” if you will.

geno auriemma mad
The prime example came late in UConn’s win over Notre Dame. They were up 20, about five minutes to go and they committed a terrible turnover. Who cares, right? The game and season are over – UConn is on its way to title #9. But no, that’s not how Geno operates. He got mad. He yelled. He gestured. You play for Geno for 40 minutes.

I wish people outside of Connecticut watched the women’s basketball team more often because they would see Geno’s drive and determination on a daily basis. No matter the opponent, he has the volume turned up to 11.

That’s why they are 9-0 in the championship games. That’s why they went 40-0 this year. As Geno said in the postgame, everything builds toward playing your best game in the biggest game.

Geno’s coaching has also led to a dramatic difference in how women’s college basketball is played. Much like how Al Davis wanted to throw the ball deep, Geno wants to speed the game up. He wants the game played fast. He likes up-tempo. He likes a good shot, whether that’s 1 second into the shot clock or 12. He likes pressure. Again, everything is turned up to 11.

It’s actually the reverse of the men’s game, which 20 to 25 years ago was all speed, whether it was UNLV, the 40 Minutes of Hell in Arkansas or the Fab Five. With a few outliers, the men’s coaches have deliberately slowed down the game, working for the best shot and milking the clock. Of course the coaches that actually win – the Roy Williams, the Bill Self, the John Calipari’s of the world – don’t subscribe to that. But the men’s game has slowed down.

The women’s game? It’s sped up because UConn sped it up. The first half of the UConn/Notre Dame final felt like a men’s game in 1992, with players taking open jumpers early in the shot clock and making them. Geno doesn’t overcoach the X’s and O’s – he coaches the players and ensures they make the right decisions.

The parallels with Davis include the fact that both are the villains of their sport, born out of jealously. No one likes Geno. He wins all the time. He’s arrogant. He lets you know about it. Al Davis was the same way.

They also both represented something new, something different, that changed the sport. Al Davis wasn’t Vince Lombardi and people didn’t like him for it. Geno Auriemma isn’t Pat Summitt and people don’t like him for it.

Ultimately, neither man really gave a damn what people thought. Davis won 3 Super Bowl titles in 7 years. Geno has won 9 national titles in 20. Both are absolute legends. Both are among the most legendary figures in their sport.

Both are the bad guys. Davis actually wore black to hammer home the analogy. UConn usually wears white.

They say you should win the right way. For fans of the 1970’s Raiders, and for fans of the UConn women, winning the “right way” means something different than it does for the opponents.

It means winning all the time. Just win, baby.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Ultimate Warrior: A Reporter’s Delight, A Kid’s Hero

As a 9 year old, the Ultimate Warrior was my favorite wrestler.

As a 22 year old, the Ultimate Warrior was my favorite story to cover.

ultimate warrior running
Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened by the heart-breaking news that he had died Tuesday night. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on Saturday. He made his first WrestleMania appearance in nearly two decades on Sunday. He returned to Raw for the first time in ages. He appeared to have made peace with Vince McMahon and the company behind one of the slimiest DVD productions in history – the Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior – that sold like crazy and revealed, deep down, we all liked the Warrior.

I know I did. I came to pro wrestling in the early 1990s, which meant I came at the tail-end of Hulkamania. Sure, I liked Hogan but that wasn’t what drew me to watch every Saturday morning. No, I watched because of the Ultimate Warrior.

Even if you didn’t watch wrestling, you knew who the Ultimate Warrior was if you were between the ages of, oh 6 and 20, in 1990. Why? Because invariably there was someone somewhere – in the classroom, on the playground, on the school bus – busting out their Ultimate Warrior impression.

It was the way he breathed so deeply he snorted. The way he said, “HOOLK HOOGAN,” over and over. The way he ran to the ring and shook the ropes like a lunatic. The face paint. The genetically altered body. He was a real-life superhero – the Hulk Hogan formula turned up to 11. It was impossible, especially as an impressionable fourth-grader, to not be mesmerized.

But the Ultimate Warrior was too much, of everything, to be sustained long-term. It didn’t help that the Feds were starting to breathe down Vince McMahon’s neck about steroids and the Ultimate Warrior in 1991 was a walking billboard for steroid use.

He returned to the WWF in 1996. It wasn’t the same. He went to WCW in 1998 for a supposed “money match” rematch against Hulk Hogan. It didn’t work.

And if that was the end of my story, I wouldn’t still be writing – there are millions of fans who loved the Warrior for his wrestling.

But I had the additional joy of being at the epicenter when the Ultimate Warrior made national news for all the wrong reasons.

In April 2005, I was a 22-year old daily newspaper reporter for the Willimantic Chronicle. Our top beat was Willimantic/Windham, our second top beat was Mansfield and the University of Connecticut. Just shy of my second anniversary at the paper, I got promoted to the second beat in March 2005. It was exciting. It was a lot of work.

Starting a beat, especially in a long-ego era when people still used fax machines, meant a lot of leg work. It meant attending a lot of meetings that were time-consuming but allowed me to shake hands, with UConn trustees, Mansfield town officials, and so on.

It also meant that when the Ultimate Warrior was on the docket to speak at UConn, they were not going to pay the overtime for me to cover it. I viewed it as a puff piece – former WWF champion speaks to college students. I’d get to meet one of my heroes and we’d have something light for the weekend paper.

ultimate warrior hof
To this day, it angers me that I wasn’t there. Since I wasn’t covering it, I decided against going. I had spent three straight nights at the UConn campus for work – I wanted a break. Besides, what was he going to say? I had some beers with some buddies, showed up to work Friday morning with a slight hangover and prepared for another day at the newspaper.

“Holy shit Sean!” my editor bellowed as I walked it. “He went fucking crazy!”

He plopped down the front page of UConn’s Daily Campus – then, printed at the Chronicle, maybe not still so today – and pointed to the article, “Warrior Attacks.”

It included the now infamous quote, “Queering don't make the world work.”

I missed it, dammit, I missed it. That’s all I thought. But then I realized opportunity had arrived. The Daily Campus article – thank you pre-social media – had not hit the mainstream yet. Only UConn students and myself really knew what had happened. As an afternoon newspaper, I had about four hours to pump out the first story on this and I knew, oh I knew, that it would be big. I was a wrestling fanatic. I knew what sites to email. I had it all lined up.

There was just one itsy, bitsy problem – I needed to interview the Ultimate Warrior. The UConn College Republicans, who were mortified and in pure crisis mode, declined to give me his information and only repeated what they said the night prior.

The UConn police, likewise, repeated almost verbatim a quote from the Daily Campus story: “How do you think, I feel I have to protect him.”

I tried the WWE first – they basically laughed me off the phone as Warrior was persona non grata. I sent an email to the info@ or webmaster@ of several different Warrior websites that may or may not be associated with him. I emailed wrestling reporters, guys like Dave Meltzer, that may have info as they were “inside” the business but didn’t want to tip my hand, so I gave a generic reason why.

Nothing was happening until I got a response from someone who claimed to be the Warrior’s manager.

“Is this a big deal?”

That was the response. I told him, indeed it was, and I need to speak with him. We spoke on the phone for a few moments and he concluded with, “Okay, I don’t know if Warrior will call you, but we’ll have something to calm this down.”

I waited. I waited. Then 20 minutes to press, the most glorious statement of my life arrived. Here is the full thing. It literally made my heart jump for joy – it was the sort of gold you dream about as a reporter. Some of the choicest quotes:

“To top it all off, this World Class Crew of Crybabies is now attempting to have the UConn administration punish the [College Republicans] for words that Warrior spoke.”

“Yet, it now seems that the CRs have collectively decided to bow down and beg forgiveness from various extremist, anti-American, left-wing groups who infest the UConn campus.”

And by far my favorite:

“That his words have been mischaracterized and that the speech was occasionally interrupted by a relative handful of students (who, for some reason, all seemed to smell like patchouli oil and burnt flag) does not detract from the fact that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance had a wonderful time and agreed with most of Warrior’s points – a fact that is corroborated by dozens upon dozens of emails that Warrior has thus far received from attendants.”

Patchouli oil and burnt flag! The Warrior story made it to Page 1. I still have several copies of it in my childhood’s home. Though now lost to the Chronicle’s archives, it was linked to from several wrestling sites and it got a lot of attention.

From that story, the AP and Reuters ran with it. Seemingly every other paper in the state had something on it Saturday, a full day after we did. Sometimes, writing a great story is all about luck.

While the Warrior was roasted in the press, I thought he was unfairly railroaded. Sure, he started a mini-riot on the UConn campus, but that’s like a weekly occurrence in Storrs. He was asked to speak his views – as he said in his statement – and no one agreed with him. Those college kids did learn a valuable lesson in the First Amendment that night.

The Warrior turned that night into a bit of a cottage industry, being a go-to whenever a group wanted a whacked out speaker to draw some attention. He was a pro wrestler, through and through, and he knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy to make some money. It was essentially his heel turn.

I’ve watched a lot of Ultimate Warrior matches in the past 10 years as the WWE embraces its history and I still love the guy. It is very readily apparent why he was my first favorite wrestler.

It is also very readily apparent why the news of his passing caused a sleepless night. He was one of a kind, in more ways than one.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

The NFL Draft is What’s Wrong with Sports

On Wednesday afternoon, I treated myself to a sushi lunch. As I overdosed on spicy salmon, spicy tuna and something called a “Super Spicy Roll” – I like spicy, ok? – I kept glancing up at the one television behind the sushi bar locked into ESPN.

At first glance, they were talking about Jadeveon Clowney. They were upon second glance. And a third glance.

nfl draft 2014
Eventually they moved past Clowney, to a surely mind-numbing debate on whether a team should take the best quarterback or best player available. What a stupid debate to have. What if the best player available is a quarterback? Doesn’t the question change if you have a franchise QB? How can we discuss this in hypotheticals?

The segment on the draft lasted through my entire lunch, featuring the usual parade of ESPN analysts, former players and the immortal Mel Kiper. I walked away, shaking my head, and thanking my lucky stars we only had to deal with this for a couple more weeks.

Then I realized – we didn’t have two weeks left, we had more than a month left! Yes, the NFL pushed their draft back into May, which means this endless parade of mindless conversation is just getting started.

It’s tough to aptly describe how sports has changed in this country. The games, at times, are almost always secondary. Hell, this week in D.C. the Nationals started playing again and the Wizards clinched their first playoff berth in six years. What was the lead story? DeSean Jackson signing* with the local football team with the racist name.

*This morning on SportsCenter, an analyst was asked if it was a good signing. He responded, “Right now, yes.” Right now? He hasn’t even played a game yet!

But the NFL Draft, in one singular event, personifies all of the sports world’s ills. Sure, I’ve ranted about my growing dislike of the event before but it deserves a more thorough shellacking.

There was a time when I enjoyed the NFL Draft. It was a fun diversion on a Saturday afternoon. I remember playing 18 holes and spending the 19th hole watching Brady Quinn’s descent down draft boards. The NFL Draft was always a big deal, but it wasn’t all-consuming, overly-dissected deal.

The NFL Draft is perfect for 2014, which means it’s terrible. It plays into everything people like about social media. Namely, it’s impossible to be wrong!

Think about it – everyone and their brother have an opinion about Johnny Football. Other than the employees of NFL teams, none of these opinions matter. Even worse, none of these opinions will be proven right or wrong for years, by which time those opinions will mostly be long forgotten. Ron Jaworski can say he has Manziel in the third round and people get mad or agree and it absolutely does not matter.

Remember when I discussed the fallacy of debating in hypotheticals? Well that is perfect for today’s sports media. Mock drafts – oh, mock drafts – dominate the Internet right now. Each site has their own version, if not multiple versions. Each mock drafter, a Todd McShay or a Kiper, updates their mock drafts frequently. Teddy Bridgewater’s stock goes up and down on a daily basis based on absolutely nothing other than our undying need to change things.

The worst part of this whole fiasco is the manufactured storylines that have begun to invade the college football season. After Clowney’s Pro Day, many like Tony Dungy declared that Clowney should be the #1 pick. Clowney, whose speed, athleticism and freakish talent is second to none, has been the #1 pick from the moment he entered South Carolina. If he came out last year, he would have been the #1 pick. If a team selects someone other than Clowney at #1, their fans should riot.

But thanks to ESPN and the 24-hour spin cycle that is our world, Clowney’s draft stock has sunk and soared on a continually basis. Has it really? Doubtful. Anyone who watched Clowney fight off double and triple teams all year – and still make an impact – knew how good he was. That doesn’t attract clicks and page views though.

“Clowney is still the best” elicits a yawn.

“Sources: teams question Clowney’s motor” elicits endless retweets, spawns SportsCenter debates and provides fodder for yakfests like Around the Horn.

The NFL draft itself is a brutal viewing experience, complete with more forced debates, more contrived stories and instant analysis. Is there anything the sports media world enjoys more than instantly deciding something? Look back at any “draft grade” assigned to a team mere hours after the picks are made and some four months before any of them seeing a professional football field.

I could write another 1,000 words on the idocicy of making a movie about the NFL Draft, but one trailer full of clichés and bad acting should suffice. What kind of sad, pathetic person do you have to be to want to watch a movie about the NFL Draft, starring Kevin Costner?

The entire thing, from start to finish, is an exercise in the absurd. It becomes even more absurd when you realize just how little the results of the NFL Draft compared to the coverage of it.

Where was Russell Wilson drafted? Or Richard Sherman? Or Tom Brady? Or any other superstar that wasn’t a much-hyped pick? There are so many positions in football, so many variables, so many different things that come into play and such a reliance on free agency that the Draft really doesn’t matter.

Surely, it’s not the NBA or the NHL where a LeBron James or Sidney Crosby change a franchise forever. I mean, the list of #1 picks is filled with guys that didn’t end up meaning that much. Ditto for the #2 picks – do you remember Jason Smith or Robert Gallery?

Before I left for work this morning, Trey Wingo told me that there is no offseason in the NFL.

There is an offseason. They haven’t played a game in two months. They won’t play for another five.

Football has an offseason. The football media does not. Remember this as you’re scouring mock drafts and glued to your television to watch a three-day made-for-TV event that will ultimately end up meaning very little.

But hey, what a time to tweet!

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