Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The NCAA Is A Farce That Only Cares About Money

Within hours on Monday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert dropped the hammer on Penn State while decrying the “football culture” while his organizations formally approved a bowl game to be sponsored by Buffalo Wild Wings

The hypocrisy would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

mark emmert penn state
There is no doubt that Penn State and its football community needed to be punished for actions of its leaders over the past 13 years. While you could successfully argue it wasn’t a football-related issue, the cover-up was no doubt influenced by football. I believe Penn State should have received the death penalty for 2012. The players could transfer immediately or remain with the university and not lose a year of eligibility. The empty stadium for the fall would have been the poignant reminder that college athletics can never again let such atrocities happen in the name of sport.

Instead, the NCAA decided on dropping a veritable atomic bomb on Penn State. The 4-year bowl ban and the dramatic reduction in scholarships means that Penn State, according to many, will not be competitive again until 2020.

Who does that punish?

In the Freeh Report, there were four Penn State officials that were called out specifically for their actions. Two of those men face criminal charges. A third, former president Graham Spanier, has already lost his job and may also face criminal charges. The fourth, Joe Paterno, is dead. They have been or will be punished. While vacating wins may remove Paterno’s name atop the record books, it will not affect his legacy – his legacy has already been destroyed by his lack of action.

The current players, contrary to some circulating opinions, escape relatively unharmed. They are free to leave and will keep their scholarships, even if at another school. The coaches are dealt a terrible hand but head coach Bill O’Brien will still make $900,000 for the 2012 football season. The fine, at $60 million, sounds like a tremendous amount but to a university with an endowment of nearly $2 billion and a group of deep-pocketed donors, it is no more than a drop in the bucket.

So who is punished by Penn State not fielding a competitive team for the next decade?

The fans. The alumni. The students.

How is this fair? The fans of Penn State do not deserve this. The fans of Penn State – a vast majority of them – would never have allowed Jerry Sandusky to prey on children for 13 years after the first allegations came to light. Sure, Penn State fans are defending Paterno but, put yourself in their shoes. If your dead grandfather was accused of horrible inaction, you’d likely defend him too. It’s human nature.

None of this explains away why these fans must suffer for the actions of a select few who put themselves above the law.

The punishment handed down to Penn State may have been better received if it were not pursued and doled out in such a sanctimonious manner. The problem at Penn State, clearly, was that Joe Paterno was given absolute power of the university’s actions. The NCAA’s solution? Give NCAA president Mark Emmert absolute power over the punishment.

The new Penn State administration – those who were not involved with the coverup – were literally cornered and forced by the NCAA to sign a consent decree, waving its right to challenge the punishment. Why? Because the NCAA gave Penn State an ultimatium – agree to this or else.

As Emmert grandstanded in front of cameras Monday morning, it was almost nauseating to hear him preach about the value of college athletics and education. The NCAA’s main source of revenue – as in about 95% of it – comes from a nationally televised basketball tournament that forces amateur players to spend up to a month out of the classroom while receiving no financial reward.

In the past two years, we have seen colleges across the country rip up hundreds of years of tradition to switch conferences in the search of the almighty dollar. College football is about to embark on a 4-team playoff that is estimated to bring in $600 million per year – where was Emmert on that one? Or is the “football culture” okay to embrace when it pays your salary?

The decision handed down to Penn State on Monday was not about righting a wrong, because that’s what the courts are doing. It was about vengeance. It was about public relations. It was about the NCAA making a political maneuver to make itself the story.

While decrying the “football culture,” Mark Emmert made a child abuse scandal relate only about football. The feeding frenzy has begun, with some Penn State players already receiving up to 35 offers from other schools. This is the NCAA’s way of punishing football, by exposing its seedy underbelly even further?

The NCAA needed to do this because its time as a relevant organization is over. Or, at least it should be over. College football and college basketball have grown too large with too much money at stake. People do crazy things when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

The NCAA could’ve used this as an opportunity to properly rebuild Penn State football. Give the university a year off from football, let the administration get its house in order and return in 2013 with a new vision of what college football could look like.

Instead, the NCAA decided to make Penn State football terrible for the next decade. How does that solve anything?

Follow me on Twitter

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Debunking The Myth That The BCS Helped College Football

“The other undisputed truth: National interest in the sport's regular season skyrocketed in large part due to the BCS championship race.” – Stewart Mandel, SI.com, 4/26/2012

“For all its faults, and partly because of its faults, it was the driving force behind college football becoming the second most-popular sport in the country.” – Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News, 6/26/2012

When I read things like this, I want to take my laptop and smash it over my head. Somewhere along the line, the myth of the BCS became a generally approved truth – the BCS helped drive interest in college football.

1998 rose bowl
Of course, the problem is that it’s not true. The BCS did not help college football become the 2nd most popular sport in this country. You know what did? Television.

When a sportswriter lazily attributes the BCS with making college football a more national sport, they are conveniently overlooking the fact that college football was always a national sport. Who were the 33 million people that watched Miami play Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl? Where did the 40 million people who watched Notre Dame play Florida State in 1993 live?

In the decade before the BCS came to be in 1998, college football was already drawing ratings that put it in the discussion as the 2nd most popular sport in the country, especially after Major League Baseball going into the tank after the 1994 strike. If it weren’t for Michael Jordan, college football in 1997 would be in the exact same position as it is today – the 2nd most popular sport in the United States.

The BCS was created to give college football a true national champion. It seemed so simple. For most of the 1990’s, there were split champions and the Rose Bowl was the main culprit. If the BCS had existed – or if the Rose Bowl strict tie-ins with the Big Ten and Pac-10 did not – we would have had true national champions in 1991, 1994, 1996 and 1997. It seemed so simple.

But from the beginning, the BCS was doomed to failure because of a destruction of the values and traditions that college football had been built on – namely New Year’s Day. Hockey, for God’s sake, made an assault on the day. The Orange Bowl has been played on random Wednesday nights for years now in front of scores of empty seats and pitiful ratings. The BCS effectively took FOUR major bowl games and reduced them to ONE, which in most years was only the cause of more controversy and lackluster ratings.

The notion that controversy sells is, on its face, an acceptable premise – any publicity is good publicity. However, the ratings for BCS title games have consistently lagged behind the ratings of title games prior to the BCS, with the rare exception of 2002 and 2005 when the game matched the only 2 major college unbeaten teams. While the NFL has seen its ratings for title games and the Super Bowl go up, college football has been fighting a losing battle.

How can sportswriters claim the BCS has been good for college football when the most important games of the year lag in the ratings?

Which brings me back to my original point – the explosion of popularity in college football’s regular 
season can be directly attributed to the rise of live sports on cable television.

In 1998, the first year of the BCS, you would be lucky to view 7 games on a given Saturday. In 2012, I feel cheated if there aren’t 7 games on my television at NOON. College football was always popular – it’s that television executives had not realized this year.

In 1998, growing up in Connecticut, the Pac-10 was a distant, far-off conference that existed only in newspaper clippings and USC games against Notre Dame. When Washington was making a national title run in 1991, I was interested in their pursuit of perfection – I just could never watch them. Literally, only one of their games was air start to finish in Connecticut, a game against Nebraska. That’s it.

When Oregon ran a similar gauntlet in 2010, I was able to watch most of their season. With the impending Pac-12 network that should be available in my area through Comcast, I could conceivably end up watching every single Oregon game this year. The change has absolutely nothing to do with the BCS. It has everything to do with money.

It cannot be stated enough that the BCS did no good for the game of college football. Sadly, it appears the next version of the college football postseason may not either but that’s another post for another day. Today, we must implore lazy sportswriters to stop with the BCS nonsense.

College football, for about 30 years now, has been an undervalued television asset. The floodgates began to open when Notre Dame signed its legendary deal with NBC for home games. And the ratings showed, very quickly, that people were ready, willing and able to watch more college football. The SEC and Big East struck a deal with CBS in 1996 and the process had fully begun. The national interest was always there – television networks and conferences were hesitant to fully meet it, foolishly thinking games on television would hurt attendance.

Instead, it’s been the opposite. With the explosion of social media and live streaming, such as ESPN3.com, it is now practically impossible for an I-A football game to be played without being aired somewhere.

Americans love football. Americans love college football. We love the pageantry. We love the traditions. We love the autumn rituals. We love spending 14 hours per week on our couches, wearing out our remotes.

We do not like the BCS. We did not like a system that changed annually while never providing the “true” national champion it set out to provide – coincidentally, the only thing it was set out to do.

We did not watch college football because of the BCS. We watched college football in spite of the BCS.

College football fans are riveted every fall by who will win the national championship. This was true in 1982, in 1992, in 2002 and 2012. The difference in 2012 is that with one mouse click, with one stroll through my guide of too many sports channels, with one streaming app – I can read and watch college football played anywhere in the country.

The BCS didn’t drive interest in college football. The fans did.

The BCS did absolutely no good for the sport of college football. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.

Follow me on Twitter

Monday, July 9, 2012

Does Anyone Care About The ESPN Smear Campaign Against the Big East?

"We always keep our television partners close to us. ... TV -- ESPN -- is the one who told us what to do." - Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo

Those words rang in my head today as I watched College Football Live after work. During the program, Mark May gave his “expert” take on the State of the Big East. Spoiler alert: he didn’t think it was good.

Last week on College Football Live, Andre Ware gave a similar, damning account of the Big East after it become official that Boise State had joined the conference. Ware said that the move would hurt Boise State’s ability to schedule big-time opponents. Yes, because the Alabama’s and Michigan’s of the world were lining up to play on the Blue Turf.

espn big east
Since the Big East turned down ESPN’s TV rights offer – a decision that was led in part by the University of Pittsburgh president – things have not gone well for the conference. The ACC took Syracuse and Pittsburgh. The Big 12 took West Virginia. The Big East responding by gobbling up big television markets in Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Orlando and San Diego while snapping up national football names, if not powers, in Navy and Boise State. But to hear the folks at ESPN tell it, the Big East is now a glorified version of the Sun Belt Conference.

Even the ESPN Big East blogger, Andrea Adelson, has gotten into the act with a string of sarcastic, stinging jabs at the current state of the conference. On the day Temple officially joined the Big East, she delivered this delightful shot across the bow of the conference. Adelson seems to hate the Big East, unlike her predecessor on the beat, Brian Bennett. Read the comments on the blog post – it’s not pretty. We want journalistic integrity from writers. We don’t mind homerism in small doses. We can’t stand overt negativity on a constant basis.

I’m a UConn fan, a season ticket holder living in Washington, D.C. I’ve grown up a Big East fan. I will defend the Big East until I’m blue in the face. I realize I may not always be right. But I’m not always wrong.

The Big East, in its 2013 state, is a better football league than the ACC. The ACC is 2-13 in BCS bowls. None of its teams have been in the national championship race in November since Florida State in 2000. Even if you include Miami, they haven’t had a team in the national championship race since 2003, and they were playing in the Big East.

The 2013 version of the Big East will have 4 teams since 2006 that entered November undefeated with national championship aspirations – Rutgers & Louisville in 2006, Cincinnati in 2009 and Boise State several times.

Of course, the “new” version of the BCS, which is increasingly looking the like the BCS we all so dearly hated, was supposed to reward on-field merit instead of perceived market value. When the Big 12 & SEC struck a deal for the Champions Bowl on New Year’s Night, everyone nodded because those conferences had proved their worth on the field. When the Big Ten & Pac-12 did likewise with the Rose Bowl, there were no snorts of derision – the conferences have had multiple BCS title game appearances in the last decade.

But when the Orange Bowl made a similar deal with the ACC, there was a lot of head-scratching and Twitter jokes. Who wouldn’t want to see an 18th ranked Georgia Tech play in a “major” bowl game. The Orange Bowl fades further into irrelevance. If you watched ESPN the night of the announcement, it was nothing but wine & roses for the deal, the strength of the ACC and their impending return to glory. College Football Live had the gall to ask which ACC would next contend a national title. In this decade, the next ACC team to contend for a national title would be the first.

I don’t begrudge ESPN, because the ACC is their investment while the Big East is likely no longer. The Big East made a calculated decision to test the open market and the rumors are flying that the Comcast/NBC conglomerate will make a solid, enticing offer to get much-needed live, college sports for its NBC Sports Network. Rumors have started about a Big East game of the week to lead into NBC’s Notre Dame coverage.

This, as one can easily surmise, is not good for ESPN. They don’t want competition. They famously hopped into bed with Fox to repel Comcast’s bid for the Pac-12 television rights. They control all of major college football right now. Is it any surprise ESPN is so gleefully pushing the “five major conferences” theme?

The problem is not with ESPN as a television outfit – the problem is with ESPN as a journalistic outlet. They are in a position to drive the debate with regard to the Big East and they have clearly chosen to disparage and slander the conference at every possible moment. Boise State was the lovable underdog who drove ratings – see Virginia Tech, 2010 – but once they entered the Big East, they have been unceremoniously shoved right back to the kids’ table.

If ESPN wanted to, they could pump up the Big East to where the ACC is right now. Boise State is a national team that gets more ink spilled (or blogs posted) than any other team in the nation save for Notre Dame, Alabama and USC. Their annual ascent on the college football mountaintop has become one of the most interesting, intriguing and divisive debates, non-BCS division, in the sport. ESPN themselves milked in for all its worth – see Nevada, 2010. They are now, in the words of Andre Ware, unable to schedule appropriately.

In 2009, Cincinnati went undefeated. Their final game, against Pittsburgh in the snow, amounted to a Big East championship. The ratings were tremendous, doubling that night’s ACC championship game. ESPN’s second highest-rated Thursday night game in history was between Louisville & Rutgers – two teams the network has now relegated to also-ran status.

Simply put, it’s not fair. ESPN has taken complete control over college football. Most troubling, though, is that no one outside of the Big East offices and the fans of current/future Big East teams seem to care. Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving was supposedly the death knell to football – even though the pair has combined for a grand total of 1 Big East title in the past 13 years, the exact same total UConn has*.

*Author's Note: To those that have pointed this out, yes, I was referring to representing the Big East in the BCS.

As Homer Simpson once said, “You can use facts to prove anything.”

There is no doubt the Big East is not the SEC, the Big 12 or the Big Ten. There is also little doubt that the Big East is at the very least – on the field – an equal of the ACC. But ACC football has a spot reserved for them at the Big Boy table, courtesy of ESPN, while the Big East fights for any ounce of respect it can garner.

On College Football Live today, Mark May said that even an undefeated Big East team would be hard-pressed to make the new Final Four of college football. It was an insane statement – TCU, Boise State and Utah all finished in the Top 4 in the past five years playing in the Mountain West. Yet, if you looked very closely, you could see the marionette strings behind May.

The Big East will be a better football conference in 2013 than it was in 2011. The average college football fan won’t believe that because ESPN won’t let them believe that. There is a reason why monopolies are outlawed in this country.

This is not new to the Big East – the football version of the conference was declared dead before – but they were still being propped up by the ESPN juggernaut. This time, the Big East has to go it alone. As a fan of the conference, we can only hope NBC will be as kind as it has been to hockey.

You remember hockey, don’t you? If you do – congratulations, you watch more than SportsCenter.

Follow me on Twitter

Sunday, July 1, 2012

How Twitter Has Changed The World: The Jason Dufner Story

“Jason Dufner is the definition of a flatline.”
-Roger Maltbie, on NBC during the Final Round of the 2012 U.S. Open

I laughed when Roger said that. For the vast majority of the nearly 10 million people watching the final round of the U.S. Open, that was the perfect way to describe Jason Dufner. There were a few of us that knew better, even if we had never met Jason Dufner.

Dufner burst onto the mainstream golf scene in late 2011 when he led the PGA Championship for 71 holes. He did so in the most interesting way possible. He showed zero emotion. He didn’t smile. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t get angry. He just hit every shot sans emotion, looking like the game of golf was an inconvenience on his daily stroll through the woods.

jason dufner
Despite the lack of outward emotion, I found Dufner a fascinating character. And yes, this is only possible in the 21st century version of golf where golfers appear to be robots sent here to destroy the world, thanking only sponsors and speaking in nothing but clich├ęs, which is also known as Tiger Woods disease.

Dufner seemed different. His golf swing stood out with a series of waggles that called to mind a baseball player in the batter’s box, not a pro golfer. He was an Auburn graduate – during the PGA Championship in Atlanta, this led to a whole lot of “War Eagle!” yells in the teebox and, well, that was more interesting than the usual “YOUDAMAN!” Finally, he dipped. Yep, in an era of political correctness, Jason Dufner was about to win a major title with Skoal packed under his bottom lip for 4 days.

Except, he didn’t. Dufner lost in excruciating fashion thanks to some ill-timed bogies and dramatic theatrics from eventual winner Keegan Bradley. The common thought in the aftermath was that Dufner would become another addition to the lengthy list of one-hit wonders that could quite cash in on their one week of good fortune – think of Dufner portrayed as a Bob May for a new era.

Regardless, I remained interested in Dufner. And this is where the whole situation gets turned on its head – I found Jason Dufner’s Twitter account. When Twitter suggested I follow Dufner – apparently it had picked up on my many Dufner-related tweets during the PGA Championship – I was more than hesitant to even look at his profile. As Roger Maltbie had so accurately summed up, the dude was a flatline. Why would I want to follow a pro golfer on Twitter? Especially one that seemed to have been born without the ability to emote?

I got up the nerve and decided to take the plunge – even if Dufner ended up being the dullest Tweeter since Tiger Woods, at least I could say I was a true fan. He only had about 5,000 followers at the time and I felt it was my obligation, if I was going to get on the bandwagon, to lend him some support.

Instead of following a flatline, I’ve followed one of the most interesting people in my Twitter feed. I say that without a hint of hyperbole – Jason Dufner is funny, smart, intriguing and engaging.

In just the past couple of weeks, I’ve read him:
You could accurately say that this blog post is simply a very (very) long-winded version of a #FF where I tell you that you should really consider follow @JasonDufner.

But it’s really another example of how Twitter – more so than any other social media network – is truly changing and shaping the world. It’s not even as simple as something like a reporter saying, “Oh back in my day, we got to really know the athletes and hang out with them,” which has become the new hotness when explaining why athletes have become more rehearsed in their answers.

The long story here is that in 2012, it’s not just reporters and media that get to know athletes – it’s everyone with access to Twitter. I’ve never met Jason Dufner. I’ve never mentioned him in a Tweet or vice versa. But it feels like I know him. I know at times, we’ve been watching the same NBA game and thinking the same thing. It’s the definition of humanizing an athlete – Jason Dufner on a Thursday night is a lot like you and me on a Thursday night.

I realized the power that a simple Twitter follow could have when Dufner finally notched his first PGA victory in the Zurich Classic with a playoff win over Ernie Els. I pumped my first when he won and wanted to go on Twitter to congratulate him. I have no idea why I wanted to do this but I was genuinely happy the dude won.

But disaster struck – his Twitter account was no longer active. A guy I had never met had won a tournament and I suddenly had no way to contact said guy I’ve never met before. It was one of the oddest feelings I’ve ever had in my life – you know, one of those moments where you start to think that your life has probably gone astray and you should re-evaluate the important things in life.

I was disappointed he was no longer on Twitter, but happy he won. He would win again. He would contend again. And suddenly, Dufner was back on Twitter. I don’t know why he left and I don’t care…it’s good to have his random tweets back in my feed.

It’s just a small example of how Twitter has changed the world. Just a few years ago, Jason Dufner would just be an Auburn grad who dipped and was incapable of showing human emotion. In 2012, Jason Dufner is a two-time PGA Tour champion who grew up near Cleveland, watches E!, loves Chuck Norris and thinks we should probably give LeBron a break a year after the Decision.

Follow me on Twitter