Friday, January 28, 2011


The Superbowl is still nine days away, but the saga of the NFL lockout is looming like a dark cloud above cowboy stadium. Commissioner Roger Goodell announced earlier this week that if no new collective bargaining agreement gets done for next season he will reduce his salary to one-dollar for next year. It will be a big hit to his paycheck, a $9,999,999 dollar hit.

A large part of the conflict is about the season going to eighteen games. As fans we all think its great, but it will dilute the product. An increase of injuries and heavy doses of Brodie Kroyle's instead of Tom Brady's will have fans turning off their T.V.'s.  The stars that we want to see won't be playing by week 14 due to injuries and playoff seeds already locked up. The reason why football is so popular is because every week is so important. Baseball, hockey, and basketball have so many games that each becomes less important, less vital, less pivotal to their season. The games are watered down. With 16 games in the NFL, concussions this year were at an all-time high. Adding two more games means more physical punishment for these players that are all held together by tape at the end of the year as it is. Then the teams that are in the playoffs, will have half of their roster on the injured list.

As fans we always want more football. Nothing is worse than when the Superbowl ends and the realization sets in that football is over for six months. But when we take a step back, smart fans know eighteen games will hurt the product on the field. I admit it's hard to feel bad for these fights between millionaires and billionaires when average Joe's making $40,000 a year are worrying about jobs, debt, and health care. The reality is that the average career of an NFL player is 3.2 years.

In the media all we see are the marquis players, their signing bonuses, and multi-millionaire dollar deals. The truth is 70% of players run out of money three years after retirement. If a deal doesn't get done, it will hurt players and fans. The owners, the billionaires, will be the ones that suffer least. For most owners, owning an NFL team is a side job and they will have money coming in from other revenue streams during the lockout. For 75% of the players who don't make the mega-millions, the river will run dry quickly.

The impending lockout with the NBA is different where the owners and eight or nine teams are actually losing money. The NFL does nothing but grow every year, get more advertisers, and attract new fans each season. The NFL is a money making machine. This is a big part of the reason why players are so upset. Football today is as popular as soccer is in Europe. Every week football is the highest rated program on television. The NFL is what people spend the whole week waiting for. I wonder in this age of technology if twitter is helping to make sure there is a lockout.

The Twitter Revolution

The downfall of the new collective bargaining agreement could come at the hands of the social network. Twitter has been great for players who are mature and think before they tweet. But, this week, consequently when labor talks have been heating up, the solidarity that is the NFL fraternity has been tested, bended, and nearly broken. It first started when current and former NFL players tweeted how soft Jay Cutler was for not playing on his MCL knee sprain and his detached indifferent body language on the sideline.

Arizona defensive back Kerry Rhodes tweeted, "Cmon cutler u have to come back. This is the NFC championship if u didn't know!"

Then the Seattle Seahawks' Raheem Brock tweeted. "Cutler u little sissy," he wrote.

Former star Deion Sanders weighed in. "All the medicine in pro locker rooms this dude comes out! folks I never question a players injury but I DO question a player's heart," his tweet read.

The unspoken code of players sticking up for one another broke with that first tweet. Never before had we seen the fraternity of brotherhood that is the NFL been breached like that before.

Cromartie called the head union rep an explicit name. “They got their guys acting like a-holes,” he said. “So they just need to get their (expletive) together and just get it done.”

Antonio Cromartie, the clown of the NFL who should focus more on covering receivers instead of talking, blasted the NFL's labor talks. In turn, Seahawks quarterback and seemingly good guy Matt Hasselbeck tweeted "Somebody ask Cromartie if he knows what CBA stands for." He later deleted the message but not before Cromartie got word of it. He tweeted back, "Hasselbeck had something to say, he should be a man about it," adding: "Don't erase it. I will smash ur face in."

The NFL has to be very careful here. We all thought the NBA was immune from losing popularity during the Jordan era, but when he left and clowns of the NBA began talking smack, the popularity among fans dropped significantly for almost a decade. Roger Goodell, who holds the most powerful position in sports needs to send a message and fine Cromartie. The media has to do a better job of not giving him a microphone.

Cromartie is like the guy at the party who tells jokes that are never funny. He's the 300 pound woman who wears a 2-piece to the beach. I don't want a guy who fathered nine children from eight woman in six different states to be the voice of the NFL. I want player reps and smart people to talk on behalf of the athletes, not the court jester of the league.

Kevin Mawae, President of the NFLPA, who played 16 years in the NFL doesn't want to budge on the players demands. I'm neither a current NFL player, former NFL player, or an NFL executive, but I have a few suggestions as a fan who wants to see football next season:

1. Games should stay at sixteen. I know the argument that it went from twelve to fourteen to sixteen and whats another two. Another two is more injuries, less starters at the end of the season, and more teams out of it by week 13 playing in games that have no significance.

2. Owners want to cut 18% of players salaries. Players obviously don't like this, but how about cutting 9% and taking the other 9 % and putting it into a 401k retirement system (pre-tax dollars), which will help these players during the retirement years.

3. Rookie salaries don't necessarily have a cap, but are laced with more incentives. Instead of 50 million guaranteed, guarantee less and pay more for their production on the field.
Examples: DeMarcus Russell and Matt Leinart

4. Monitor twitter. Twitter takes fans into the private minds of players and in the lock rooms. Obviously not always a good thing.

5. More transparency from the owners with actual costs they would incur for new facilities and stadiums.

6. Players are always stressed in the off-season when they receive no income. Spread the pay checks over a full calender year so players can budget their finances better.

7. Since the average NFL player is in the league for 3.2 years and health benefits kick in after five active years, have it kick in after 3 for players whose career prematurely ends  because of a debilitating injury.

 8. Instead of fines, suspend players for devastating hits to the head. This will deter players from doing it because they will be letting their team down if they miss games. This will also limit mental disabilities like Alzheimer's and dementia player's suffer after retirement.

9. Education about pain-killers and how to use them without abusing them.

10. Let's not have the collective bargaining agreement overshadow the epic battle that will be Superbowl 45 next Sunday.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is Lebron James the new villain of the NBA?

"I've decided to take my talents to South Beach". Those infamous words changed everything. Lebron James went from hero to villain in the blink of an eye. July 9th, 2010 we were all "witnesses". The league's best player and reigning two-time MVP decided to abandon the franchise that drafted him, 45 minutes up interstate I-77 N from Quicken loans arena. He left the team that had the best record in the league, the team that reached the finals in 2007, and the one that dominated the eastern conference for the last half decade. James left because all of those accolades were reached because of him. As an athlete, you have a very short shelf life. Your career is measured in dog years and any injury at any moment can end your playing days forever. Your drafted, you play, and the next thing you know your an analyst at ESPN critiquing the new batch of rising young superstars.

Call him arrogant, self centered, and naive for how he went about the decision, but let's not pretend this hasn't been done before, in basketball or in life. Some that don't know Lebron, don't know how savvy he is. He is a historian of the game like Kobe, a marketing genius like Mike, and has the comedic presence of Peyton Manning. 

Believe what you will, but Lebron is smart. He does have many ears in his inner circle, but at the end of the day the ear that he listens to is his own. He's an athlete that knows where he stands, the cards he holds, and limited time he has to use that leverage. He gave seven years, half of his NBA career to a franchise that was never dedicated to winning. We know this from the simple fact of watching the Cavaliers without Lebron this season. They have reverted back to the team they were before Lebron was drafted, a twenty win team dwelling at the bottom of the eastern conference's basement. The player we all thought was the robin to Lebron's batman, Mo Williams proved to have benefited greatly with Lebron at his side. On any other competitive team in the league, he's nothing more than a bench player. The Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert's big move was bringing in "40-year-old" Antwan Jamison as their answer to get Lebron and the Cavs over the hump. This was their acquisition they worked on for six years. A player over the hill and way out of his prime.

When Kobe faced a rough patch with the Lakers after Shaq departed to Miami, Phil Jackson recognized it and brought in the skilled Spaniard Pau Gasol to fill the void. Only then, did the Lakers regroup and begin to win championships again. As big as one player is to turning a franchise around, no team does it alone with one superstar. It takes a second and often a third star to win it all. History tells us this from Bird, Parish, Mchale and Jabar, Magic, Worthy to Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Allen, Pierce, and Garnett. Lebron saw what happens when one star plays with garbage and he didn't want to become another cautionary tale. So many others have played in the league, played well, but have no hardware to show for it. Their rewards for carrying the load are more physical punishment, heavier knees, and ultimately shorter and less productive careers. The Allen Iverson's and Tracy Mcgrady's of the world are a testament to what little rewards come with being the only star of a franchise. The numbers are there, but no rings. They have a legacy with an asterisk of team mediocrity. They are forever remembered as great players, but never great winners. Lebron, a student of the game recognized this trend and said enough. He didn't want to play a decade and a half in a city that wasn't committed to bringing in players to help him carry the load. 

We make it out that Lebron was the first to leave his city for greener pastures, but the precedent was set in baseball in 1969 by Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe Lebron reached back far in sports history and saw what Curt Flood fought for. Flood, a defensive standout, refused to accept a trade in the 1969 season ultimately appealing the case to the supreme court. Although his legal challenge was unsuccessful, it brought about additional solidarity among players as they fought against baseball's reserve clause and sought free agency. 

In a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood demanded that the commissioner declare him a free agent:
        December 24, 1969
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

Fans don't go to games to see the owners, they come to watch the players. The NBA's car is driven by the stars, the owners just provide the roads. Micheal Jordan and Charles Barkley criticized Lebron for his decision saying they could never play with rival superstars. We live in a different sports era today. Players on rival teams are friends off the court, tweet one another, and do commercials regularly together. James might not actually be a villain, but has learned since being booed in every city but Miami, that he is now portrayed as one. Like batman said at the end of the Dark Knight, "I'm whatever Gotham need me to be". Lebron has realized he can never go back to being the kid from Akron playing for his hometown team. If the league and fans want to paint him as the villain, Lebron will provide the brush.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Divisional Playoffs: A tale of Familiar Foes

Why is football America's most popular sport? One can argue its the violent nature, the rattling hits, and the cheerleaders. But, more than that its the drama. This season, like so many others before it, what the masses thought would happen usually has not. We are always left shocked, jaws dropped to the floor wondering if what just transpired was a hallucination from the bad chinese we ate the night before. Games that experts and fans call locks really aren't and the supposed underdog can always win.

On any given Sunday anything can happen. Similarly this makes football dramas on television so compelling. From the movie Any Given Sunday to Friday Night Lights, (Did Billy-Bob Thorton really not play a jerk for once?) and everywhere in between, we know the drama we see on the silver screen also occurs on the turf every Sunday.

This past weekends divisional round of the NFL playoffs provided upsets and drama that we have come to expect as routine, but as they unfold still amaze us. A story line set up as Atlanta at home with Matt Ryan being 20-2. This was a Falcons team that was the best in the NFC all year with the best record. But, just as the great football movies we love, football proves once again that any team with a heart beat has a chance. The Packers are probably the most dangerous sixth seed that has ever been in the playoffs with one of the hottest quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers.

Packer fan this morning at the breakfast table: "Brett Favre who? and "Honey can you pass the Woodsen Wheaties".

It's fitting that the golden globes were on right after the wild weekend of football games came to a close. Football continuously proves to be epic theatre and entertainment with plot twists at every turn. With the odds against them, the Packers not only won, but puts up 48 points on the Atlanta defense. Nostradamus couldn't have predicted that. Rodgers had arguably one of the best playoff performances in recent memory throwing for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns, while converting 86% of his passes. It's funny how everything works out. Matt Ryan was praised all year and rightfully so, gets a spot ahead of Rodgers for the pro-bowl, and now Ryan will be watching Rodgers from his couch as the Packers move on to the NFC championship game.

If you only look at turnovers on the box score of any game, you probably can tell who won. Commit less turnovers and there's a great chance you come away with a victory. The Steelers/Ravens game was a testament to just that. Heinz field in Pittsburgh had more turnovers than the Ford factory in Flint, Michigan. First the Steelers committed them in the first half, but the costly turnovers came in the second half by the "why can't we ever beat the Steelers in the playoffs" Ravens. If you want to beat a team like the Steelers at home, you have to play close to perfect and committing three turnovers is most certainly a death sentence. When the Steelers fell behind two touchdowns, everyone thought it was over. We all thought the Ravens defense would hold up to a Steelers offense that had been pedestrian all year. We thought Joe Flacco wouldn't make costly mistakes to give the game away. Again, we all thought wrong.

If anyone picked the Jets to win against the Patriots, I need to meet you for stock tips. The Jets won at Gillette Stadium, really? The Jets broke Brady's 26-game home win streak, really?? Rex Ryan out coached Bill Belichick, really??? Where is Seth Myers and Amy Poehler for this as an SNL skit, really? Yes, it happened. The second biggest upset game of the playoffs happened last night. (The sea-chickens routing the defending champs still has to be number one). The stunning part was how seemingly easy the Jets handled the Patriots. A Patriots team that a few weeks ago destroyed the Jets 45-3. Earlier in the week Rex Ryan said it was all about Ryan vs. Belichick. We all laughed. How could the game be about two coaches? Its the players on the field, right? Belichick, master game-planner extraordinaire, got out-coached last night, offensively, defensively and on special teams.

The Patriots played poorly, but also uncharacteristically. Their disciplined, militaristic style was shaken. The Patriots had 6 penalties for 44 yards and a big unnecessary roughness penalty called on Mankins. The team that usually does no trash talking and does their talking on the field, had Wes Welker  poking fun at the footie during the week causing Welker to be benched for the first series. This was the third meeting between these two division rivals and it seemed that the Jets learned from their other meetings how to beat the Patriots. The Jets understood they were more athletic and that the way to beat a team that executes their system to perfection is to take away what they do well. The Jets made Brady uncomfortable all game, not blitzing constantly but changing it up, sometimes dropping back in coverage. The Patriots all year and the entire Belichick era have always been the disciplined child of the family, but last night confusing blitz packages and deceptive zone coverages had the Patriots "acting out" of character.

We all know Brady is the best at his position and even he seemed out of sync. The first drive when he threw an interception, the first since October, gave the Jets momentum for the rest of the game. The next few drives, Brady seemed hesitant, a bit flustered, something very uncharacteristic of this years best player and league's MVP. 

As reporters filed into the locker room, Jets safety James Ihedigbo's voice could be heard above the thumping bass of Jay-Z's "On to the Next One".

"They all doubted us!" Ihedigbo yelled over and again. "They all doubted us!" Yes, we all did. But that doesn't matter. Once again, football proves to be the sport of ultimate drama and suspense, leaving us speechless after sixty minutes.

Stats are made to be broken: No team in NFL history had lost by at least 35 points in the regular season and then won a rematch in the playoffs. In each of the previous five instances, the losing team lost by at least two scores in the rematch.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Brett Favre: The Curtain Closes

He has announced his retirement...again. For the second time in three seasons, Brett Favre has decided to end his 20-year career. In the past five months, enough drama has unfolded for a lifetime with the latest being the NFL fining Favre $50,000 for sending inappropriate text messages to ex-Jets employee Jenn Sterger. Any fan of the game of football will tell you that Brett Favre is one of the best football players they've ever seen, not just one of the best quarterbacks. Even though he holds almost every significant record a quarterback can have, its much more than that. From his first pass in 1991, to his last in 2010, you could always see the pure joy he had playing the game. Now when you google Brett Favre the first thing that comes up is his scandal.

In life, its rare we get to do what we want for a living. The majority of us work everyday at our jobs, clocking in and out with little or no fulfilment. Not only was Brett one of the best, he enjoyed every snap and played every down like it was his last. He might have gotten gray over his 20-year-career, but that smile never changed. He had the same excitement after throwing a touchdown at 41 that he did as a wide-eyed kid in his twenties. When I close my eyes I can see it. Brett throwing a bomb to his receiver and running full speed to congratulate him on the other end, hands raised and smiling the whole way down the field. The numbers speak for themselves and speak to the kind of player Brett has always been. He has thrown the most touchdowns and interceptions in NFL history. Like the last few years, Favre's roller coaster ride has been one of ups and downs, one of great decisions and of terrible mistakes. As a fan, I try to compartmentalize Brett Favre the man and Brett Favre the quarterback, but for some his legacy will be stained forever. To be fair, Favre isn't the only player to have been found with indiscretions. We just went through the Tiger Woods firestorm and many athletes from previous generations had their infidelity masked by the lack of the 24/7 media we have today.

Five years from now, Favre won't be defined by his waffling retirements or inappropriate textings to an ex-Jets hostess, but by his play on the field and a streak of 297 straight games. Even those who aren't impressed by streaks, this one has to impress you. Football is a sport of collision, not contact. When we see the toughest guys in the league sidelined with turf-toe for two weeks or a broken finger for an entire season, it puts into perspective how hard it is to play week in and week out, let alone since the first George Bush was in office. When I rank quarterbacks of all time, I don't know if I have Favre in my top five. What I do know is I will miss watching him every Sunday. As great as Brady and Manning are, Favre brought the child-like playfulness to the field every week. Football today is viewed as a business which it is, but Favre appreciated it in its simplest form, a game. He played every game like it was his last. Many, including myself have been critical of him over the last few years after leaving the Packers and then waffling between retiring and unretiring. Then I really started to think how hard it must be when the one thing you love to do more than anything in this world is slipping away. Your body and age try to tell you that your done, but your heart wants to give it one more round.

Brett's want to be the center of attention is undeniable, but that doesn't take away from the fact that retiring from football is the hardest thing he ever had to come to grips with. It was evident this season when he was urged not to play against the Bears and an hour before the game decided to suit up. Brett has always done his own thing, and his stubbornness led to his streak lasting as long as it did. The competitive fire in him never dimmed with age but when his body finally failed him, even his will wasn't enough.

Growing up Allen Iverson was my favorite basketball player. He never had the polish of Kobe Bryant or the dunks like Vince Carter, but he played every single game as if it was his last. He never quit on any game he ever played, ever. I loved him for his competitive spirit, for laying it all on the court every night and when his body aged faster than he wanted, you could see the devastation in his eyes. Once the ball was tipped, I've never seen a fiercer competitor and a man willingly risking his body on every play, except for Brett Favre. Now, Iverson  is playing in turkey because he just wants to play. Basketball is all he knows and Iverson is willing to move halfway across the world to do it.

It seems as though this time Brett is hanging up his cleats for good, but if he did wait and waffle again I would understand it. Its hard to give something up that has been your life for as long as you could hold a football. Brett would probably play until fifty if he could because nothing fulfills him more. When we judge him years from now, let's remember the joy and excitement he brought to us with his play. When the dust finally clears and the gunslinger hangs up his spurs for good, we will miss his late game winning drives, miracle and seemingly impossible throws, and even his "I cant believe he just threw that interception" moment.

A Night to Remember

One day after his father died of a heart attack, Favre decided to play in a December 22, 2003, Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders. The Packers traveled to Oakland where Favre passed for four touchdowns in the first half and 399 total yards in a 41-7 victory over the Raiders. He completed 73.3% of his passes and finished the game with a passer rating of 154.9,the highest of Favre's career and just 3.4 points shy of perfect. Afterwards, Favre said, "I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play. I love him so much and I love this game. It's meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn't expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight."He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance. He then went to his father's funeral in Pass Christian, Mississippi.

I watched the game on T.V. in 2003 when I was still in high school and re-watched it last night. This game sums up the kind of person Brett Favre has been his entire career. Losing a parent is an unspeakable tragedy and being able to play at the highest level of a sport and to have one of the best games of his life is what legends are made of. Football was more than a game to Brett, but also an escape to another place. Micheal Jordan once said being on the basketball court was the most peaceful place in the world. Favre felt the same way about a football field. Love or hate him and however you feel about his off-field issues, we will never see anyone like him. There's only one Brett Favre.