27 June 2012

WILL THE REAL LEBRON JAMES PLEASE STAND UP?

"The Decision"  Arguably the moment that started
the "Public Enemy #1" Campaign for Lebron James.

 
The fall out from "The Decision" was epic for
Lebron.


                For a few years now Lebron James has been “Public Enemy #1” in the NBA.  A kid who hit the mainstream lights of the NBA from Akron, OH to a man who quickly fell from grace after announcing to the world he “taking his talents to South Beach,” to the newly anointed World Champion.  I have been of those who have bashed Lebron for years, constantly criticizing him over his performances late in playoff games, throwing jerseys after losses, and handling of the media.  Even this year, I bashed the Heat (mostly Lebron) heading in to the playoffs, and through all their series.  Every round I pulled for whoever the Heat played, and pulled for the media to get Lebron rattled.  Through the first 3 rounds I saw flashes of the Lebron we have all become so accustomed to seeing, fading late, passing when he shouldn’t, and not leading his team like a true superstar should.

Leavue Scoring Champion vs. League MVP

                The NBA Finals.  Oklahoma City Thunder.  Kevin Durant.  League Scoring Champion.  The NBA Finals.  Miami Heat.  Lebron James.  League MVP.  The 2012 NBA Finals.  Heading in to what would be a very one sided NBA Finals I fully expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to dismantle the Heat in 5 games, and crown the Thunder “World Champs.”
                With the stage set, Lebron James stood up, showing everyone that the crowned “Public Enemy” had been laid to rest, and King James had arrived.  Answering a game one loss at Oklahoma City where Lebron was outscored by Kevin Durant 36 to 30, he responded.  Game 2 came down to big plays in big moments, with Lebron leading the way with 32 points, 5 assists, and 8 rebounds to Durant’s 32 points, 1 assist, and 3 rebounds.  With a game that could be argued over calls that were made or weren’t made, the Heat pulled out a win to send the series back to Miami.
With one NBA Title under his belt, is the
pressure off Lebron to prove his greatness?

                Returning home, determined to prove the critics, naysayers, and possibly even himself, Lebron James delivered what could be one of the greatest NBA Finals performances for a series, all while leading Miami to the Championship.  Pushing the Heat to a 2-1 series lead, and outdueling Durant, Lebron took charge leading the way with 29 points,3 assists, and a team high 14 rebounds.  Game 4 proved to be a tougher challenge for the new Lebron, battling leg cramps that required him to be carried off the court, only to return later in true Willis Reed fashion, the Heat went on to win behind Lebrons 26 points, team high 12 assists, and 9 rebounds, falling just 1 rebound shy of his first triple double of the season.  The Heat had to resist a fiery effort from Russell Westbrook who lead the charge for the Thunder with 43 points, but falling short 104-98.
                Game 5.  Too much Lebron.  In what he called his own game 7, Lebron showed he can close out big games, collecting his first triple double of the season in true superstar fashion- 26 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds.  The Heat stormed away from the Thunder and never really saw them get close, winning game 5 121-106.

King James delivered on the biggest stage in true
superstar fashion.

                Lebron showed us that he can lead his team, he can be the leader that many of the greats before him were, whether he needs to lead his team in rebounds like Bill Russell did for many of the Celtics championships, whether he needs to keep feeding the hot hand of Mike Miller in game 5 the same way Jordan feed Paxson and Kerr on the way to championships, or whether he just needed to inspire the same way Paul Pierce did after returned to the game after leaving due to injury, Lebron fought through everything this series, but never folded once.  He shut out the critics; he shut out the noise, and just played basketball. 
                Is this the beginning of true greatness?  Was this success forged from chance?  Or, will we see the old Lebron again?  I think it’s a scary realization for the East;  Superman had kryptonite, but the Finals showed us that King James doesn’t have a known weakness, only a hunger for success.

Which Lebron shows up for 2012-13?


19 June 2012

A New Era of NFL Football: Bounties Galore

The NFL claims bounties were put on NFL QBs Warner and Favre
               

One of the greatest RBs to ever play the game,
Barry Sanders often frustrated opposing players
with his uncanny running abilities

I remember growing up watching NFL games on Sunday with my older brother.  He has been a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan for as long as I can remember.  I remember one day he was mad when his favorite player got hurt;  Rod Woodson was attempting to tackling Barry Sanders in the open field and ended up breaking his ankle due to all the turning, twisting, and changing of directions.  Barry Sanders was a remarkable running back, to say the least.  He could single handedly change the outcome of a football game, make grown men look like boys, and leave you asking the only question imaginable, “How did he do that?”  Never once did I ever hear my brother say he wished one of the Steelers would take a cheap shop on Barry, attempt to hurt him, or anything else that could have been perceived as such.  To think such a comment was unheard of, it was unsportsmanlike, it was just plain wrong.

                2012 has marked a dark day in the NFL, a time that should have never happened, an event that should have been stopped.  The New Orleans Saints were discovered to have used what’s been called “Bountygate” during a 3 year run of NFL play.  Bountygate was a program put in place by coaches and players to reward New Orleans Saints defensive players who knowingly, and willfully, enacted pain and punishment on opposing offensive players.  The NFL uncovered what it called “substantial evidence” that linked coaches and key players from the Saints leading this Bountygate effort, and certain players who were said to be critical players in the operation.  In my opinion, violence is a part of the NFL, just like it is in boxing, UFC, and the NHL.  Granted, no one in the NFL or NHL is going to stop the game, put on gloves, and go to blows for a few rounds, but the violence is there nonetheless.  Players expose their bodies to plays, absorbing hits of great force, and continuing to perform every play.  They do so because they have an understanding of sportsmanship, integrity, and a shared concern over player safety.  The New Orleans Saints have raised questions as to whether or not they are concerned with any player not on their own team.


NFL great Junior Seau is the most
recent victim of NFL trauma that
followed after the playing field
days were over.

                It’s recently been thought that the so-called violence in the NFL has lead to health-problems of former NFL players, players who played the game with a certain style, and then well after their playing days were over, blamed the NFL for their health issues.  In a way, I don’t blame the NFL anymore than I blame the player, but at the same time I blame both the player and the NFL.  Do I think the NFL should be held solely responsible for the player’s health problems later in life?  No.  Do I think the NFL helped contribute to the problem?  Yes- to a degree.  That’s a different topic all together though, because the rules of the NFL have changed over time, and for the most part, the safety rules are in place to help protect the players, not limit what they can do. 

                The whole Bountygate scandal has left a black eye on the New Orleans Saints and it’s players involved.  Do I think they are completely innocent?  No.  Do I think they are solely to blame?  No as well.  What I do think is this- I think the New Orleans Saints instituted a pay for play system in which the defensive players were given rewards for taking out “targets” in the NFL.  I don’t think there was a player on the defense who stood up once and said “This is wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this.”  Just like I don’t think there was a coach who stood up and said “Guys, think about this, it’s not right for us to do this.”  I think both the coaches and the players knew it was wrong, knew they shouldn’t be doing it, and knew that if they were caught they would have to face the music for their actions. 

                Whether or not Jonathan Vilma was the leader of the players in this scandal or not, is really irrelevant to me, as a fan.  What I do think is that as a leader of the defense it is his job to stop the offense on the field, and it was his job to stop the Bountygate process, or report it to the NFL, neither of which he did.  His negligence in the matter makes him responsible, whether he is willing to admit it or not.  Look at Penn State’s football team and the fallout from the Sandusky allegations.  Joe Paterno, the legendary coach, was terminated as the head football coach at Penn State because they said he failed to do enough about a problem, a problem he did in fact report.  (Granted, the situations are different, but the principal behind each is the same- the person, who should have done more, did not).


Saints players were on video claiming to want their
"money" for knocking out Favre

                What I do think is that punishment is warranted if in fact there were such actions taking place.  The players are quick to bash the NFL for not taking enough care of them, for allowing them to have health problems later in life, but when information like this comes to light, they jump up and scream the NFL is wrong in their actions.  I’m sorry, you can’t have it both ways, either you play by the rules (that you have forced on yourselves), or you find a new line of employment.  The New Orleans Saints, Jonathan Vilma, Sean Payton, and the coaching staff are all responsible for what happened.  Through all of this there has not been one mention of anyone ever raising concern of the actions, the only concern raised, from what I’ve seen on TV and in the news, has been players asking for their cut of money for injuring players, such as Brett Favre.

                In addition to all the uproar from players who have screamed foul for the NFL and the NFL not taking enough care of players on the field, is the current NFL players’ contracts.  If a player has a moral clause in their contract, does conduct such as Bountygate violate such a clause?  What would constitute a violation?  Just being involved?  Leading the efforts of Bountygate?  Having knowledge and not reporting it?  In my opinion, just having firsthand knowledge and not reporting it is a violation of the morals clause.  If it is illegal for a person to put a bounty on another person, then it’s illegal in the NFL just the same.  A bounty program by nature is 100% illegal in this country, and anyone involved in such actions should be treated as such, and their employment should be questioned, if not terminated.  Anyone found to have firsthand knowledge should be removed, whether or not they participated, because knowing and not reporting makes them just as guilty as the person delivering the action.

Again, I have no problems with the NFL, the violence in the NFL, or the way the NFL is played today.  If players want to be safer, then I’m all for it, but in the process of forcing the NFL to rewrite rules and change the way guys like James Harrison play, then the players have to help their own image.  If you’re going to say you’re not actively involved in a Bountygate scandal (Vilma), then you need to be the whistle blower who’s stopping it, otherwise, you’re involved, and just as responsible.  PERIOD.


Jonathan Vilma says he's innocent even
though he did nothing to stop the
"Bountygate" practices on the field

08 June 2012

Show Me The Money?

It’s 5am and the alarm clock sounds. Beep.  Beep.  Beep.  The sound echoes through the quiet room indicating it’s time to get up and start another work day.  First a shower.  Second some breakfast.  Grab a packed lunch and hit the door for the car to go to work.  In the office by 7am and ready to start the work day.  You read e-mails, check voicemail messages, and ensure you’re caught up for the day.  The joys of being the working class American.  It’s by no means a glamorous job, but it’s a job nonetheless. 

After the hiring interview you were given an offer letter that outlined the terms of the job you were being offered, the salary you would receive, and company expectations.  You signed the letter, shook hands with the hiring manager, and were welcomed as a part of the company.  Your signature, the final piece of the equation that sealed the deal.  Your signature, your word, your agreement.

In corporate America you can sign a contract to work for a company and off to work you go.  You have some flexibility in your negotiations, but not usually to get a great extent.  You can ask for $75,000/annual salary and they company might come back with $68,000.  Either way, once you finally reach a number you’re both happy with it’s a done deal.  You can’t show up to work every day for six months, contribute, and then decide that you’re going to refuse to come to work until you get a better salary.  You would be replaced, on the spot. 


2004 NFL Draft #1 Pick

                However, this is the game that is played frequently in professional sports.  Do I agree?  Do I disagree?  Do you agree?  I think there are times when it’s perfectly acceptable for an athlete to “hold-out” and refuse to show up, but I think there are times when it’s completely beyond any acceptable reason for an athlete to do it as well.  Take for example, in 2004 the San Diego Chargers held the #1 pick in the NFL draft and had decided they were going to draft Ole Miss Quarterback Eli Manning.  Upon learning the Chargers intended to draft him, Manning made it clear that he would not play for the team.  The Chargers ended up trading his draft rights to the New York Giants for Phillip Rivers and the rest is history.  Was Eli Manning right or wrong?  In my opinion, he was well within his rights to refuse to play for the Chargers.  He had not agreed to play for them, hadn’t signed anything to say he would, and was under no obligation to do so.  The Same thing happened in 1986 when Auburn produced Bo Jackson.  Bo told the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he would not play for them, and they called his bluff.  Instead Jackson signed a contract to play baseball for the Kansas City Royals and never laced up for the NFL season. 
A year later the rights to his draft status expired and Bo Jackson was again placed in the NFL draft and this time selected in the 7th round by the Oakland Raiders, where he did eventually sign.  Again, I think this is acceptable, he was under no obligation to play for the Buccaneers, and even told them he didn’t want to play there.  The fact is, the NFL draft isn’t a guarantee for either party, team or player.  Yes, first round picks are “guaranteed” a contract, but that doesn’t mean they have to accept it.  Just like any job interview, a player can refuse to commit his services to the drafting team, just like any working class American can turn down a job offer with a company.  What I disagree with is when a professional, either working class or athlete, commits to a contract, signs the contract, and then decides they aren’t happy with what they agreed to.
               
                In 2010 New York Jets Cornerback Darrelle Revis decided to hold out of camp after having a super impressive post-season run in 2009.  Revis was under contract already for the 2010 season, and after hearing what Head Coach Rex Ryan called “the best year a corner has ever had,” Revis decided it was good enough to demand more money.  He held out, arguing he was an elite cornerback and deserved to be paid more money.  Did he?  In my opinion, no, he didn’t.  Just because he had one great run in the post season of 2009 didn’t entitle him to anything additional in the way of compensation.  He signed a contract, agreed to honor that contract to its fullest, and put his name on the “dotted” line.  What Revis did was send a message that said if you are underpaid and overperform, hold out, make the team give you more money, but what’s the otherside of that coin, what if you’re a player who performs great, gets rewarded with a new contract, and then doesn’t perform?  Should your team be able to hold you out until you agree to a new contract?  I bet there isn’t a player in the league who would say yes.  I would have no problem with Revis reporting to camp, participating in walk-through, drills, and team meetings, and his agents working in the background on a new deal.  The message then would be much different, it would say, I’m a part of this team, but I’d like to be paid accordingly for the work I do, but I want to continue to be here.  After 35 days of holding out the owner and coach met with the player and reached a deal that both sides could agree on.  But did they?  Fast forward 2 years, to 2012, and we’re back at it again.  Revis is threating again to hold out, claiming his salary isn’t market value for the best corner in football.  He made $32.5 million dollars the previous two seasons, an average of $16.25 million per season, but is set to make $7.5 million in 2012 and $6 million in 2013.  If I were the New York Jets and he decided to hold out, I’d send the message that it’s unacceptable and not make a deal with him.  He’s under contract, a contract he agreed to after holding out once before, and a contract he should honor.  In my opinion, they should let him stay at home.  Make it clear, if you don’t want to be a part of this team, under the terms you agreed to, then you won’t be a part of any team for the duration of your contract.  The contract is currently a 4 year deal, but can turn into a 7 year deal if Revis misses any offseason team activities.  I’d let him hold out, extend the contract to 7 years, and tell him enjoy the next 5 years of unemployment, because in 5 years when the contract expires, no team is going to want his service.

                I think players these days get away with too much in the way of team disruptions.  I think when a professional athlete signs their name on a contract, agreeing to perform a service for a team, they should be held to that contract.  Send the message, if you can’t honor your word, you can sit at home.  I understand it hurts the team, but does it really?  Imagine if the Tennessee Titans didn’t give in to Chris Johnson’s demands for a new deal and told him to sit at home.  What would have happened?  Halfway through the season the team would be suffering in the running game, but if they stayed the course, went through the season, finishing near the bottom of the league, the outcome could have been different.  Instead of picking number 20 in the draft they could have been number 2 or 3.  Their reward for sticking to the guns of a holdout, Trent Richardson, running back, Alabama.  One season in the dumps, one held out elite running back, replaced by a younger running back, eager to play.  The message would then be loud and clear, and if more teams began to follow suit, then contracts would begin to be honored, under the terms they were agreed to.

                Don’t get me wrong, I believe that an elite player should be as an elite player, but not after just one good season.  When a player has that one great season, post-season run, or major career milestone, then they are well within their rights to discuss a new contract deal, but to say they refuse to play until a deal is made, is very unacceptable.  In my opinion, a franchise, owner, and general manager would be more likely to discuss a new deal with a player who’s on the field in practice, in team meetings, going through film study, and contributing to the team rather than discussing a deal with a holdout player who’s sitting at home watching SportsCenter.

06 June 2012

Fans versus Athletes

 
One of the most famous signatures of all time
  A young kid waits patiently at the end of a long row of adults.  Everyone lined up, crowding one another, pushing to get closer as the approaching athlete walks closer.  Arms extended, hands holding gear to be signed, pictures, magazines, and other memorabilia all waiting to find out if they will be lucky enough to gain the autograph they each seek.  The young kind continues to wait, not pushing, not yelling, but standing eagerly awaiting his idol to get close enough that he may acquire the signature he so desperately wants.  As the easily recognizable figure walks past, ignoring each of the fans, hecklers, and haters, the little boy can only watch and lower his arm holding the outreached object.  Yet another superstar who ignores those seeking his attention, time, and signature.  A signature.  Something we do everytime we write a letter, sign a check, pay a credit card transaction, or sign a card.  A signature.  Why do athletes today feel like stopping to give an autograph is beneath them, not worth their time, or not something they will do – for free.  Yes, they will line tables for hours signing everything you throw at them for money, but they often choose to walk past the line of true fans when it comes to not getting paid. 

     Any given athlete will walk right past someone, whether they stop to sign an autograph or not, just saying hello to that young fan will be something they remember for ever.  When I was 13 years old I got the change to meet Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning at a Charlotte Hornets basketball game, both said hello to me, neither would sign autographs.  I doubt either of them remembered my face 10 minutes after saying hello to me, but as a young kid, that stayed with me even until today.  I remember Larry Johnson giving me a high-five as he ran past me towards the tunnel to the locker room. 

     I understand that stopping to sign autographs can lead to a lengthy delay in getting to where they need to go.  They sign for one person, then another runs up, and before long the mobs don’t stop coming.  I get it.  So, a fan, like myself, I carry my camera when I attend sporting events, in the off-chance I pass an athlete or celebrity and can snap a quick photo – either of them with me, or just them as they pass.  More often than not, most athletes and celebrities don’t really care when a fan snaps a quick photo or two as they pass by, or during a game, as long as you aren’t disturbing them during times like dinner, when they are with their family, or worse – the bathroom.  There’s no contract that an athlete signs to give full permission for us as fans to take their picture, just like there’s no waiver we sign as fans that say they have the right to refuse us their photo.

     Without the fans filling the seats, often paying outrageous prices for tickets, merchandise, and food in the various venues, athletes wouldn’t have their jobs.  Athletes like LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Prince Fielder all make more money in a month than most of us will see in a year, yet we save our paychecks for several weeks until we get enough to get that one ticket to see our favorite star play.  We wait patiently in line to get in, run down to the seats and hope to see them warming up, getting lose, or maybe if we’re lucky, signing a few autographs.

     Without fans athletes would be unemployed.  The lifestyle they have grown accustomed to, gone.  The fancy cars, clothes, and big homes, gone.  Interviews, magazine covers, and endorsement deals, gone.  A year ago only a select handful of people knew who Jeremy Lin was, but after a series of injuries and forced playing time the entire world knows who he is.  Fans stormed the stores to buy jerseys, t-shirts, and memorabilia in support of “Lin-Sanity.”  This knew found popularity skyrocketing Lin to the top of the charts in sales.  He will certain gain a new contract, not because of the fans, but because of his ability and skills, however, it’s the fan support that buys the merchandise, tickets, and goods, which give revenue to the teams that pay the salary.  You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but without fans supporting you, you’re just another face in the crowd.

Phil was unable to complete the Memorial
after having his photo taken by a cell
phone camera.
     Why do I say all this?  Phil Mickelson is upset about fans taking his picture during a recent golf tournament, the Memorial Open.  I understand golf is a quiet game, fans are expected to be quiet, remain still, and respect the athletes as they hit shots.  My response is simple, Phil, you make $57,000,000 year (estimated from Golf.com), you can’t handle a few fans taking your picture?  For that kind of money, I’d stand for a few hours before or after my match and take all the pictures they wanted, sign some autographs, kiss some babies, and even help the little old lady cross the road.  We’re not talking about a guy who is struggling to get by on minimum wage, trying to feed a family, barely able to make a house payment, we’re talking about a guy who’s in the upper 10% of our society, top 6 of his profession, complaining about a few fans taking his picture while he plays.  Seriously??  I would love to see the contract Phil Mickelson signed that ensured he would be free of photographs while playing golf.  I would love to know how much money Phil would make if the U.S. Open sold zero tickets;  If no one showed up for the 2013 Masters in Augusta. 

     I think when Phil is teeing off to hit, he’s entitled to quiet fans around him, but you’re a professional athlete in a sport where you’re paid millions of dollars, why not act like a PROFESSIONAL?  Stop your whining, go out, play golf, and be thankful people actually like you enough to sneak a phone in to get your picture. 

     I have no problems with an athlete refusing to sign an autograph, it’s their right.  I have no problem with an athlete refusing to stand and take a photo with me, it’s their right.  I do have a huge problem with a professional athlete who, for however long it might be, forgets that the fans are what make the sport great, the fans are who pay the money that contributes to their salary, and the fans are the ones who wait for hours in lines to see them for a mere few seconds as they pass by.

     I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Robinson on Bourbon Street in New Orleans the day following Kansas’ loss to Kentucky in the NCAA title game.  People walking all around and Thomas was glad to stop and pose for a photograph with me, shake my hand, and ask my name.  I told him he played a great game, I wished him the best of luck on his future, and he thanked me before he turned to walk away.  His team just lost the biggest game of their season, and he had time to talk with 2 UK fans wearing UK gear.  Mr. Mickelson, you could stand to learn a few things.
Kansas University superstar Thomas Robinson and Me in New Orleans, LA
2012 following KU's loss to the Kentucky Wildcats for the
NCAA National Championship.