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Marathon

When the news broke on Monday that two deadly explosions had taken place on the streets of Boston, I reacted, as many Americans do in times of crisis, by turning on the news. And as I watched Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper try to explain the grisly scene of blood and pandemonium unfolding in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, I began rummaging through my closet, searching for something I hadn’t used in years.

Upon successfully locating my lucky gold running-shorts, I dusted them off, put them on, and walked out the door. Within what felt like mere minutes I was weaving through the Marshall Street traffic and heading toward Thornden Park. Already my footfalls were out of rhythm, my lungs were out of breath, and I hadn’t the faintest idea why I was running. I hadn’t really run, like really run, in a couple of years, and my erratic breathing wasn’t letting me forget it.

My first thought was that I was coping with my legs again. It’s something I’d been doing since I was an extremely overweight high school freshman first hearing about the death of my grandparents. My fifteen year old brain couldn’t process the information, so I ran. And I ran. And I ran farther than my out-of-shape body had any business running.

But suddenly I knew, as I panted my way up the steps of the Thornden Park Amphitheater. That’s not what was happening here. I wasn’t coping, I was training. I was training for the Boston Marathon.

It seemed an odd reaction at first. What a strange way to respond to a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombings. What was I trying to prove, you know? How could this do any tangible good for anyone at all? But then I spoke to friends I ran with in high school, and I discovered I wasn’t the only person to react in this fashion. They too wanted to run in 2014. In fact, it turns out that interest in the marathon is reportedly 15 to 20 times higher than any time since 2008.

However, to run in the Boston Marathon, competitors must first register a qualifying time at an approved race before September 22.

Age Men Women
18-34 – 3hrs 05min – 3hrs 35min
35-39 – 3hrs 10min – 3hrs 40min
40-44 – 3hrs 15min – 3hrs 45min
45-49 – 3hrs 25min – 3hrs 55min
50-54 – 3hrs 30min – 4hrs 00min
55-59 – 3hrs 40min – 4hrs 10min
60-64 – 3hrs 55min – 4hrs 25min
65-69 – 4hrs 10min – 4hrs 40min
70-74 – 4hrs 25min – 4hrs 55min
75-79 – 4hrs 40min – 5hrs 10min
80&up – 4hrs 55min – 5hrs 25min

These qualifying times are not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Yet it’s possible that the Boston Athletic Association will relax its incredibly strict admission restrictions. For example, it could permit more than the usual 25,000 entries for 2014. With that said, I know even if I’m not able to participate in the race, I’ll at the very least show up to cheer from the finish line.

College Capitalism

The debate over whether college athletes should be paid has raged for years. Essentially the whole issue boils down to the fact that college athletics is a business. Underneath the x’s and o’s, l’s and w’s, are red and black figures scrawled in some ledger on Adam the accountant’s desk (because in my mind that’s how accounting works). It’s these numbers, the net gains and losses, which fuel collegiate sports. But where people tend to take issue with the business of college athletics is the pay structure and distribution of revenue.

It’s an Occupy Wall Street kind of argument; the system is too top-heavy and higher-ups are exploiting those beneath them. Similar convictions are at play. In the case of college sports, the schools and coaches are the ones raking in massive piles of cash. But the athletes don’t share in these spoils. Some of them are lucky enough to receive scholarships for their efforts, but the disproportionate earnings present a stark contrast.

Just take a look at Andy Enfield, the coach with the super model wife who became the talk of the nation after Florida Gulf Coast progressed to the Sweet Sixteen. His team exceeded expectations, won a few games under tremendous scrutiny, and suddenly, when the Cinderella story concludes, he’s off to greener pastures. 847,000 dollars greener, as the new coach of USC. That’s his compensation for Florida Gulf Coast’s incredible string of upsets.

Can you guess how much those junior forward Chase Fieler was compensated for those wins?  How about 0 dollars. How about senior guard Sherwood Brown? Again, 0 dollars. The really difficult question to answer is how much money Florida Gulf Coast made from those wins. With the tidal wave of incoming freshmen the school is sure to receive, considering all the free publicity garnered by their stellar basketball team, the number is pretty much incalculable.

So here’s a possible solution. If colleges insist on paying a guy like Enfield a million dollars per year or a guy like Rick Pitino 3.9 million dollars per year, then there should be a caveat to these ludicrous paychecks. The coach should allot money from his yearly income to pay players. It could be used as a recruiting tool, and when players perform well they can receive bonuses to reward what they’ve done for their school.  

Okay, so the idea definitely could do with a little polish because it’s far from perfect. But then again what business is? 

March Madness- Death By Cinderella

ImagePerennial powerhouse college basketball programs like those of Kansas, Duke, and Syracuse may comprise the backbone of March Madness, but it’s the Cinderella stories that give the tournament its soul.  This year’s big dance looks to be chock-full of soul with a bevy of upsets in the early rounds headlined by Harvard and Wichita State. However, for every inspirational Cinderella story there is a more sobering tale written in the subtext, and sometimes it’s worth considering those who get trampled and trounced on Cinderella’s unlikely road to triumph. Sometimes it’s worth considering someone like Tray Woodall.

After Pittsburgh’s shocking 55-73 defeat at the hands of Wichita State, Tray Woodall, a fifth-year guard for the Panthers, walked unsteadily off the court. His eyes were red, his head was hung, and his field goal percentage in the last college basketball game of his career was forever stuck at a nightmarish 8 percent.

Woodall averaged 11.5 points per game during the season.

He scored 2 in the loss to Wichita State.

After the game, the young guard broke down into tears in the post-game press conference.

“It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” responded Woodall when asked to explain his feelings about his last performance as a Pittsburgh Panther. “To end my career with one of the worst games I’ve played in the history of playing here….I’m sorry I let my team down…..It was one of the worst games I’ve ever played.”

                It’s always heart wrenching to see someone pour so much of themselves into a pursuit, only to stumble and fall when the goal is finally in sight. And seeing a young man like Woodall, who is clearly in such a fragile state, needlessly coerced into tears by inane interview questions almost tempts my inner Mike Gundy into letting loose a fiery, good-old-fashioned “I’m 40” rant.  But, of course the reporter didn’t actually do anything wrong. And, after all, the tears aren’t even what make Woodall’s meltdown so poignant. It’s everything that came before.

                Woodall grew up in Brooklyn in a home with no father, an addict mother, and a sister with a daughter of her own to support. At the age of 12, he started selling drugs in order to make a living. His sister, Shataya, did likewise. If other avenues were available to them, Tray Woodall couldn’t fathom what they were or how he could find them. It wasn’t until he relocated to Paterson, New Jersey and moved in with a newly-made friend that he realized the other trajectories his life could follow. And so, with the help of his surrogate family, Woodall threw himself into his schoolwork and, even more so, he threw himself into basketball. Basketball which brought him to the University of Pittsburgh. Basketball which brought him a college degree and a hope for a brighter future.

                So while this year’s Cinderella bandwagons (Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast) start to rapidly pick up steam and new passengers, just keep an eye out for the teams, dreams, and narratives being left in their wakes. Because if Tray Woodall isn’t a true Cinderella story, I don’t know what is.

 

 

Coach K: Court-Storm Hunter

Storming the court is as quintessentially “college basketball” as is March Madness. In many ways, it’s emblematic of the high-energy atmosphere of the NCAA and the purity, and joy, of the game which many college enthusiasts believe the NBA sorely lacks. Now, if after reading this last sentence you find yourself sagely nodding your head in agreement, I have one recommendation for you. Riotously invade any and every hardwood surface you can find. And do it quickly, because the good-old-fashioned court-storm may soon be going out of style.

If you didn’t already hear, Virginia upset #3 ranked Duke on Thursday. It was a pretty big deal. A court storming kind of big deal….at least that’s definitely what the Virginia student section thought. The highly-respected, gold-medal-decorated head-coach of Duke, Mike Krzyzewski was of a slightly different mind.

“Whatever you’re doing, you need to get the team off first,” said Coach K after the game. “Look, celebrate, have fun, obviously you won, that’s cool. Just get our team off the court, and our coaching staff, before the students come on.”

Coach K went on to describe the inherent hazards of the court-storm. And he made a lot of sense. Obviously in any court-storm situation the stormers are having a grand-old-time. But, on the other hand, the team desperately trying to flee the oncoming tidal wave of drunk, face-painted frat-boys probably isn’t reveling in all the court-storming fun. And then there’s always the worst-case scenario: things turn ugly fast and someone gets hurt.

With the number of people reacting in support of Krsysewki, a rule-change may be lurking just around the bend.  And, it’s not like a court-storming prohibition would be unprecedented. The SEC currently has a rule that states: “For the safety of participants and spectators alike, at no time before, during or after a contest, shall spectators be permitted to enter the competition area.”

This SEC policy comes with a $5,000 fine that can be assessed to a school on a first offense with up to $50,000 being fined for further offenses. If similar punitive measures are applied to the rest of the NCAA, fans can kiss their court-storming days goodbye as surely as colleges prefer not to hemorrhage green. And, if there’s one thing you can say with all certainty about this issue, colleges do love their money. 

Equal Opportunity Ass-Kicking

                Place two grown men in a cage. Now set a timer. Finally, have them commit assault and battery on one another until one of three things happens:  time runs out, one man cries uncle, or one man loses all cognitive functionality and collapses in a bloody, crumpled heap. Sounds like something that could raise a little controversy, doesn’t it? Now swap out those men with a pair of women.

                The UFC has done exactly this. The largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world is debuting its first female matches in UFC 157: Rousey vs Carmouche on Saturday night. And while the company has met its fair share of criticism in the past (Senator Mccaine once compared MMA to human cockfighting), the introduction of women into their iconic octagonal ring has kicked up an entirely new kind of stink. A gender roles kind of stink.

                Boys play with action figures. Girls play with dolls. Boys play cops and robbers. Girls play house. Gender roles are so engrained in our culture many don’t even realize that they exist. And more importantly, they don’t realize the absurdity of their existence. Remind me again: who is it who decided guys wear ties and girls wear dresses?

So it follows that some would be more incensed by female MMA than its more common male counterpart. Women don’t fight. Men fight to protect women. It’s so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that extirpation will likely be a long time in coming. So I say let the ladies fight if that’s what they want to do. Maybe Rousey and Carmouche can remind America that Baby doesn’t always need Swayze. Sometimes Baby is perfectly well-equipped to armbar and superman punch her way out of the corner all by herself. 

R.I.P. N.F.L.

Bernard Pollard, safety for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens team, recently foretold the coming demise of the NFL. He claimed that if the current trend of NFL rule changes was allowed to continue, the game would cease to exist in “another 20, 30 years”. Pollard certainly isn’t prescient. And his moniker “Patriot Killer” which he earned by laying low a number of New England players including Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski throughout his career, doesn’t earn him an overabundance of credibility as a critic of rule changes promoting player safety. However, with all that being said, Pollard’s statement is far from absurd and probably hits closer to the mark than most NFL enthusiasts would care to admit. The NFL could very well be on borrowed time, and the reason might be that football is the closest thing the United States has to a nationally-embraced “blood sport”.

Of course football isn’t literally a blood sport, but it’s close. NFL players aren’t gladiators and the Louisiana Superdome isn’t the Roman Coliseum but the violent spectacle taking place every Sunday throughout the NFL season is creating a growing cause for concern nonetheless. The NFL averaged 5.4 concussions per week in 2009, 7.6 in 2010, 8.4 in 2011, and the concussion numbers aren’t expected to plateau any time in the near future. Combine this with the string of recent suicides by retired NFL players, and you’ve got a recipe for gridiron disaster. As scientists continue to discover the alarming long-term repercussions of repeated concussive trauma to the brains of professional athletes, the growing prevalence of the head injury will only bring greater scrutiny on the NFL. In fact the concussion issue has already garnered enough attention to warrant a PBS and ESPN collaborative special report on the topic scheduled for release in Fall 2013. And if Frontline is on the case, you know the issue is deadly serious.

So football may not literally be a blood sport. But if retired players continue to suffer from long term mental health problems like those that allegedly resulted in Junior Seau’s suicide, concussions may make football the first indirect blood sport in history. It’s an epithet that won’t read all that differently on the NFL’s tombstone. 

PR Panacea – Rehabilitation of your Image or your Money Back

PR Rehabilitation step 1: Don’t just talk the talk

PR Rehabilitation step 2: Destroy your Ivory Tower

The year was 2010 in the year of our lord, and King James was in a PR tailspin. His court was in disarray, his kingdom in rebellion, and the Jester probably even stole his thorny crown. Now, three years, one ring, and one incredibly exuberant hug and subsequent midcourt frolic later, all indications suggest that the King has officially regained his throne.

Deservedly or not, Lebron James garnered the revilement of an entire nation of basketball fans in the 2010-2011 season. This swiftly becomes evident after only ten minutes of sifting through the fossil record of blogs and news articles from the year of his Cleveland departure. In hindsight the sheer magnitude and breadth of this fan sentiment is both startling and to some extent, highly irrational. However, retrospective analysis can only lead us to attribute the near universal loathing exhibited toward James to be a direct result of a single perceived character trait: overwhelming arrogance. And, the most egregious sin of all, it was an arrogance unsubstantiated by championships, the conventional measurement of career success in the NBA.

If falls from grace were featured in Olympic gymnastics, Lebron would have received tens across the board from any panel of judges. Any slight misstep along the way could have prevented him from hitting rock bottom in the public eye. If he hadn’t conducted The Decision with such an absurd level of grandeur and self-importance, or if he hadn’t publically promised the city of Miami a near infinite number of championships (okay, the final tally was 8), he likely could have refrained from becoming public enemy number one.

Now, number 6 has stuck an equally remarkable comeback with this simple two-step process. First he backed up his bombastic proclamations. During the 2011-2012 NBA season Lebron James became league MVP. The Miami Heat then proceeded to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the NBA finals behind an MVP performance from James, and magically success transformed James’ arrogance into confidence. PRR step 1 – complete.

Fast-forward to January 26, 2013. Miami Heat fan Michael Drysch sinks a half-court shot to win 75,000 dollars. Obviously Drysch is excited, but his excitement pales in comparison with the level of elation and glee expressed by NBA superstar Lebron James as he bear hugs Drysch to the floor. Suddenly, James is no longer a villain. He’s just a kid who loves basketball, and if you watch the video, listening closely over the commentary and Lebron’s laughter, you can hear the faint sound of an Ivory tower crumbling. Who would have figured? All it takes for a King to regain his throne is to remove his crown and spend two minutes walking amongst his people. PRR step 2- complete.

One Nation, Under Football, with Liberty and Nacho Dip for All

February 3, 2013 is a wildly important date for NFL players and fans alike. It’s the Super Bowl, the Holy Grail for any professional pigskin player. It’s the criteria for determining the success of a player’s career. Like it or not, the algorithm for legacy is pretty straightforward. It pretty much boils down to counting the rings on a guy’s hands when he’s finally forced to hang up his cleats and start filming wrangler ads while riding around on a tractor for the rest of eternity (or whatever players who aren’t Brett Favre do with their retirement). Likewise, for passionate NFL fans the Super Bowl means validation. It means vindication. It means ultimate bragging rights with no shelf life. But here’s the kicker: the Super Bowl isn’t just a pivotal date for NFL players and fans. It’s a pivotal date for the United States of America.

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but allow me to explain. The United States is an increasingly divided country. Politically, economically, culturally, socially: it often seems as if the rifts grow wider and wider with each passing year. Blame the polarizing effects of our two-party system. Blame the avarice and duplicity of corporate elites. Blame the thousands of television channels made available by cable providers or the depersonalizing vastness of the internet and social media. Point fingers in whatever direction you please. The truth remains that the common ground beneath the feet of Americans is shrinking more rapidly than the passing lane of a receiver covered by Ed Reed.

Super Bowl Sunday is one of the only days every year when nearly every American citizen is on the same page. Last year’s Super Bowl boasted an average audience of 111.3 million people. During the electrifying fourth quarter conclusion, that number hiked up to 117.7 million viewers. Not only are these numbers staggering, they’re record breaking. The 2012 Super Bowl was watched by more people than any other television program in the nation’s history.

No matter your race, gender, age, socio-economic status, or level of interest in the sport of football, chances are you’ll watch, discuss, or consume alcohol in close proximity to the Super Bowl, or a Super Bowl party, in the very near future. Relish it, because no matter how trivial or grand-scheme-of-things meaningless the Super Bowl may be, it’s one of the few opportunities you’ll have in 2013 to live in a U.S. of A. where the U is actually carrying its weight.

Kill Your Heroes: Idolatry and Professional Athletics

Lance Armstrong belonged to a rarefied group of individuals. He achieved such a degree of success that he joined an exclusive class of athletes who transcended the sports that they played and became cultural icons. Sports gods, if you will. However, with his recent confession he has joined an entirely different coalition of talented athletes: one of fallen gods and cautionary tales.

Armstrong is far from the first athlete to burst the collective bubble of his or her fan-base. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez and countless other famous athletes have let down the lofty expectations of their supporters by taking the steroid shortcut. And that’s not even taking into account the many non-steroid related transgressions which have led athletes into a world of trouble. Pete Rose tarnished his baseball legacy with sports gambling. OJ Simpson’s legendary career at running back lost much of its luster due to his, now infamous, legal issues off the field. Tiger Woods enraged his fans with his unscrupulous behavior. Mike Tyson was one of the best boxers who ever lived, but now is only perceived as a lunatic with an insatiable appetite for Phil Collins’ music and Evander Holyfield’s ear. All of these people were made out to be more than men until they gave the world sobering reminders that underneath all of their wealth, talent, and accolades, they’re merely flesh and blood.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s case is somewhat unique. He didn’t just disappoint his fans. He violated all of the principles and values upon which he had built his brand and image. He founded his fame on an inspirational message of perseverance in the face of adversity; on the notion that hard work and determination can overcome any odds. Then he chose to cheat and use steroids in order to surmount the odds and obstacles he confronted in his own life. It’s the equivalent of Tiger Woods selling millions of bracelets promoting monogamy prior to his scandal.  

Athleticism alone does not amount to a good role model. Professional athletes aren’t heroes by nature. They’re humans.