Saturday, April 11, 2015

Tiger Woods in the role of the underdog

I didn't care much for golf until Tiger Woods came along. In 1997, at the age of 21, he won the Masters -- a tournament organized by a golf club that hadn't admitted its first black member until seven years earlier -- by 12 strokes. What young American sports fan wouldn't be drawn to a story like that?

As the years progressed, he proved that he was much more than just hype. It's unfortunate that there might be an entire generation of kids growing up now who will only know Tiger Woods as a cautionary tale: a once-great golfer who made even greater mistakes. Those who weren't alive at the time, or who were too young to remember, won't be able to appreciate just how good he actually was. They can look up his performance in majors on Wikipedia, but you kind of had to be there.

It's one thing to read about how he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes; it was quite another to watch it unfold. To know that nobody could touch him. To see the look in his competitors' eyes, because they knew they were up against an unstoppable force. History will show that he won four majors in a row, and five out of seven from the PGA Championship in 1999 through the Masters in 2001. But to have actually watched it in those days was to watch something we knew we might never see again. I was too young to appreciate Michael Jordan's peak years, so Tiger was the closest thing I'd ever seen to a great artist at the top of his craft.

It was then, during the early 2000s, when he was at his most dominant. Each victory felt inevitable. I suppose that's why I started to root against him. Not because I didn't want him to make history, but because making history was simply a foregone conclusion. There was no doubt he was going break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors, so I went ahead and pulled for the likes of Bob May (who briefly matched Tiger shot for shot during a playoff after the 2000 PGA Championship) and Chris DiMarco (who pushed him to a playoff at the 2005 Masters). Rooting for the underdog is always more fun.

Now, Tiger Woods is the underdog. He hasn't won a major since 2008. His struggles are partly the result of his own selfish choices, partly the cruelty of time and age. The record of 18 majors that once felt inevitable now seems like it might be impossible.

And that means, for the first time in a long time, rooting for Tiger Woods is fun again. If he were to win another major, it wouldn't be just another step on the road to 18. It would be his redemption. It would be a comeback story for the ages. It would be exactly what every kid needed to realize that Tiger is so much more than a cautionary tale. He was the greatest athlete of his time. He made an entire generation care about golf, and maybe he can do it again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What skeptical Cavs fans can learn from Ohio State's football team

In late October, Ohio State played a night game against Penn State in front of 108,000 people in Happy Valley. The Buckeyes, despite a home loss to Virginia Tech a few weeks earlier, came into the game as double-digit favorites. They raced out to a 17-point lead at halftime.

But then, the wheels kind of came off. JT Barrett threw a pick six, Sean Nuernberger missed a field goal, and the Nittany Lions came roaring back to send the game into overtime.

Ohio State ultimately pulled the game out in a second overtime, but this game was proof that the Buckeyes were a flawed team. The fact that they blew a lead against Penn State, a team that had just lost to Michigan and Northwestern, meant that they were going to be in for a long season.

Or so we thought at the time. It turned out that Ohio State's season was long, but only in the literal sense -- they are going to end up playing more games than other teams.

Now, on the verge of playing for the National Championship, Urban Meyer points to that game in Happy Valley as a crucial turning point for his team.

In the moment, it seemed like that game was evidence of something. And it was, just not of what we thought. It wasn't evidence of a bad football team, it was evidence of a team that can find a way to win under very difficult circumstances.

A narrative can change that quickly.

There is always a desire to begin assessing a team from the first moment it steps on the field. But teams are never complete on day one. Even if the roster itself doesn't change much over the season, the players on it inevitably do. They grow, individually and collectively. Challenging nights in October can lead to celebratory ones in January. Sometimes fans' patience pays off.

Keep that in mind while watching the Cavaliers over these next few weeks. LeBron James, David Blatt, and David Griffin will not ultimately be judged by how the team plays this winter. They will only be judged in June.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The moral dilemma of watching football

Sometimes when I find myself still awake at night, I will scour YouTube for long videos that will hopefully be interesting enough to distract me from the fact that I can't sleep. A few months ago, I clicked on this lecture that Malcolm Gladwell gave in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania, without knowing what it was about. (It's over an hour long, so you don't have to watch it right at this moment. But I suggest that you do at some point.)

During this lecture, Gladwell discussed the risks associated with playing football. He talked about the link between getting hit in the head repeatedly and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is the disease that likely caused Junior Seau to commit suicide in 2012. And he told the story of another player, less famous than Seau, who likely suffered from CTE, and committed suicide in 2010. His name was Owen Thomas, and he had been a collegiate player at the same university where Gladwell now gave this lecture three years later. (This was obviously a controversial tactic for Gladwell to use, and you can read the school newspaper's account of it all here.)

To Gladwell, this is a straightforward issue. We know that playing football is bad for a person's brain. We don't necessarily know how bad, or if anything can be done to mitigate the impact, or how pervasive a disease like CTE actually is. But it's pretty clear that football was responsible for the premature deaths of Seau, Thomas, and others. If not for "tradition" (and, of course, money), an institution like the University of Pennsylvania would never sponsor something that was known to potentially cause serious brain injuries. No academic institution would.

As more time passes, we're getting an even better idea of just how bad the problem is. This is from Friday's New York Times:
The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.
One out of every three players. It's one thing for professional players, who are well-compensated, to assume such a risk. It's quite another for a college to subject its own students to those risks, without fairly compensating them, or providing them with any long-term medical care, all while the coaches and the athletic directors and the university presidents bathe in pools of money.

So it would seem that college football is a morally corrupt enterprise.

But what about the NFL? Can the health risks assumed by the players be justified by their salaries? Maybe. I honestly don't have a good answer to that question.

What we've learned over the last couple of weeks, though, is that the NFL has a whole other set of moral failings. They're soft on players who beat up women (and it's not just Ray Rice) and players who beat up their kids. These issues were discussed on television by a former player who just had a statue built in his honor despite his involvement in a double murder 14 years ago. The owner of my favorite team allegedly made some of his money by defrauding his own customers.

All of this has led some to suggest that it's time for reasonable people to boycott football. I must admit that the part of my brain that is able to think about things in a logical manner finds this argument compelling. Whether we're talking about the NCAA or the NFL, supporting these entities that are run by corrupt men who are making millions of dollars off of athletes who are risking their own lives feels morally wrong.

And yet...

I was at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, along with 104,403 other people, to watch Ohio State destroy Kent State. And it was awesome. On Sunday, I drank beer and sat on my coach with some friends and watched the Browns pull off an improbable win against the Saints. It, too, was awesome.

I love football. I love the camaraderie that comes with sharing a communal experience with thousands of other people. I love thinking about and discussing the extensive strategy that goes into every single play. I love that it gives me something to do on weekends in the fall.

No matter how much the logical part of my brain thinks that I should give up football, I'm not sure that I ever could. And I don't think that this country ever will. Emotion is always a stronger pull than logic. For better or worse, this uniquely American sport is part of who we are, and it's here to stay.

That doesn't mean, though, that we shouldn't think very critically about the issues that surround this game. Ignoring them won't make them go away. And acknowledging those moral questions is not, on its own, a justification that should allow us to be comfortable with giving more of our money to the NCAA or the NFL. But that acknowledgment is at least where we have to start.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why the Cavs won’t win a title this year, or next year

Since I am not a normal contributor to this site, I feel like a slight introduction is in order. My name is Ryan Spruill and I am from Dayton, Ohio, but I have always been a Cavaliers fan. I went to school at the University of Toledo, where I was fortunate to meet Chris Donovan, and after graduating, went on to receive my MBA at Wright State University.

So, at around noon Friday, I was sitting at my office in Cincinnati, Ohio, when I heard a sound of disappointment. At my office, ESPN is always on, so I was a bit curious. To my surprise, I found out that LeBron James had decided to come back home. I was very excited, not because he was coming home, but because of the fact that this puts the Cavs right back on the brink of a championship.

Obviously, my mind was racing because they are clearly a very good team with LeBron on the team, along with young talent in Kyrie Irving and others. Irving has improved each year that he has been with the team, although this past year seemed to be a little disappointing one for him. The good news is that I feel like he played poorly due many uncertainties, such as where this team was headed with a GM in Chris Grant and a head coach in Mike Brown. It also stems from him having his third head coach in four years, and with that comes three new systems. There had to have been talks between him, new GM Griffin, and new head coach Blatt about the system they were implementing and the future of the Cavs’ roster. He must have been happy, as Dan Gilbert tweeted that there was a verbal agreement between him and the Cavs, with him tweeting about it well before July 10.

The Cavs also have two unproven number one picks. We all know about Anthony Bennett’s disappointing season, where he looked a bit out of shape and struggled to find his shot. I have heard rumors that he is having a great summer camp, but I want to see it to believe it when it matters at the beginning of November. They just drafted Andrew Wiggins, who played one season at Kansas. He had a fantastic year; however, he seemed to disappear when it mattered most. He has a very good shot, but not a consistent one. Personally, I wished the Cavs would have drafted Jabari Parker, who I thought was a little more consistent and had an ability to take over games in the final two minutes.

Dion Waiters seems to have a killer instinct, but he also seems to be inconsistent and takes plays off. Tristian Thompson has improved every season, but I question whether he can become a star of this league, not that averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds per game would not be bad. It is just that is all I see Thompson becoming.

Nonetheless, the Cavs, who are basically an all-star college team outside of LeBron and Anderson Varejao, now have Vegas odds of 3 to 1 to win it all next season. I do not see them winning it this year at all, or even next year.

Yes, I know this may come as a shock to a lot of people, and yes, I do want to be that person that says they can’t win it first, but I really do not see them winning it all. For one thing, I feel like they don’t have a great rim protecting center. Sure, Varejao is great for hustle plays, but he does not have that killer instinct, particularly on offense. They also have the young guys, who are expected big contributions this year in Irving, Wiggins, Waiters, and Thompson. The problem is, none of these guys have playoff experience. I am adamant on this, as I always feel like you become better because of your failure in playoffs. I feel like there is a reason  it took LeBron nine years to win a title, or it took Michael Jordan seven years to win his first. You have to face your failures, own up to them by using them as a teaching tool.

The Cavs are still entertaining the idea of trading for Kevin Love. The problem is, it may cause them to give up probably a Waiters/Bennett/Wiggins combination, and even a first rounder. Granted, they have three first rounders in next year’s draft, so giving up one of them might not be so bad. Waiters has somewhat proven himself, but I feel like he lacks discipline on the court with his shot as well as in the locker room. Wiggins and Bennett have all the potential in the world, but they could also be a flop as well. Personally, I would hold onto Wiggins and Waiters and see if they could do something with one first rounder and Bennett, but that is just me.

The Cavs are also very interested in Mike Miller and Ray Allen. Both are three-point specialists, but have a lot of miles on their legs and are liabilities on defense. If I were to pick one, I would likely go with Miller, just because he is younger. But neither one excites me.

So, after all this, you have to take a look at the Eastern Conference. The East was extremely weak last season, and I expect more of the same. I think the Cavs are early favorites, with Indiana an easy second, and then some up and coming teams. I really like Washington with their young backcourt in Wall and Beal. They could be the dark horse in the East along with Chicago, who still has Derrick Rose with an unknown injury status.

Again, as I said before, I like the Cavs to make it to the Finals, but we all know that is easier said than done. Out West they have serious competition in the Spurs, the Thunder, and the Clippers. I feel like all three of those teams could take on the Cavs and beat them handily. My early pick is the Thunder, as I feel like they match up extremely well against the Clippers, and we all know how difficult it is to repeat as champs in any professional sport. The Thunder are in the exact same position the Cavs were in 2009-2010, with the possibility of Kevin Durant leaving for better pastures in Washington in 2016. I actually see them getting it done this year with a more mature Westbrook, a polished Ibaka, and a steady backup in Steve Adams.

Do I think the Cavs will win it all? Well, there are no guarantees, and LeBron seems to realize that. However, I think if they stay the course and keep healthy, year three of LeBron’s return might be the one. Get ready Cleveland, this is exciting couple of years!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Browns beat writer thinks Johnny Manziel needs to be evaluated for chemical dependency

The Plain Dealer's many sportswriters love to do the shtick where they answer questions from regular fans like you and me. In today's edition, Browns beat reporter Mary Kay Cabot fielded a question from a "longtime Browns fan" about Johnny Manziel: Is it time for Johnny to "man up and act like a Brown?"

Unfortunately, we need to leave aside the absurdity of the question itself. (What exactly does it mean to act like a Brown? How does one act like he plays for a team that has made the playoffs one time in 15 years?)

The really shocking statement came from Cabot's answer: "With the pattern Manziel has shown since being drafted, it's time to have him evaluated by a chemical dependency counselor to make sure he doesn't have a problem." Whoa.

Reasonable people can disagree about Manziel's behavior up to this point. Personally, I think the bigger issue is the fact that the off-the-field activities of a kid who is 21 years old are being breathlessly reported as if they matter. If this were ten years ago, we'd have no idea what Manziel was doing during his days off. As long as it doesn't impact his play on the field (as of now there is no reason to believe that it will), it doesn't matter. Other people have argued that it would be nice if he were using some of his party time to study his playbook or whatever, and I guess that's a reasonable opinion.

What is not reasonable, however, is for a reporter to question whether or not somebody has a chemical dependency based on some photos that have been posted on the internet. That's a serious thing, not something that should be tossed out in a "Hey Mary Kay" article.

This city's media has proven itself incapable of covering the circus that is Johnny Football in a reasonable manner.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Jurgen Klinsmann we trust

I thought that Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Landon Donovan off of the USMNT's World Cup roster was dumb. It seemed to be based on things other than soccer ability, because even an out-of-shape Donovan should to have some value to this team, if only as a sub. And even if Donovan truly wasn't good enough, he at least deserved a chance to go out on his own terms after being the face of American soccer for a decade.

I also thought that it was a mistake for Klinsmann to say that the UMNT "cannot win this World Cup." It may have been a true statement, but it doesn't really reflect the American spirit. Maybe the "American spirit" is just a BS term that a man from Germany doesn't really have to care about, but I don't think it's ever a good idea for a coach to tell his players that they have no chance to win the tournament they're about to play in.

The decision to cut Donovan, combined with that quote, have hurt Klinsmann's standing a bit among some American soccer fans. I include myself in that camp. (Although I do not include myself in the camp with Michael Wilbon, who told Klinsmann to "get the hell out" of America. Calm down, bro.)

And yet, I have not lost the trust I have in him. I continue to feel optimistic about the future of the USMNT, both immediately and in the long term.

Part of my confidence comes from the fact that we really have no other choice. Klinsmann was not brought in to win the 2014 World Cup; he was brought in to re-shape the entire system. He's got the credentials to suggest that he should be given every opportunity to do so.

But it's more than that. Whatever he's doing is working. The results speak for themselves, up to this point. I wrote about some of them last year: the USMNT's first ever win against Italy, their first ever win in Estadio Azteca, a win over Germany, and a record-setting winning streak. I understand that all of those big wins came with caveats attached, but the fact remains that the wins in Italy and Mexico City had never happened before. Ever. Under any circumstance. In the history of soccer in the United States.

Now, you can add this to the list: For the first time ever, the USMNT went undefeated in their sendoff games leading up to the World Cup. Go ahead and say whatever you need to say about how the games are meaningless or whatever; it's still yet another thing that had never happened before. This team is heading to the World Cup hotter than any of their predecessors.

Obviously the challenges awaiting them in Brazil are enormous. Ghana, Portugal, Germany. It will take some amazing performances, and a bit of good luck, for this team to even get into the next stage.

Nonetheless, I believe in this team and its coach. It's the World Cup and anything is possible.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The difference between Johnny Manziel and LeBron

You have probably heard about Johnny Manziel's recent trip to Las Vegas. Everybody has an opinion about it, even Brady Quinn. Personally, I think it is a little silly that we spent so much time talking about a dude's vacation, but I guess that comes with the territory of being Johnny Football.

Some people even wrote articles about which seat Manziel sat in on his flight back from Las Vegas. That's how ridiculous this Vegas story got.

How do we even know which seat he sat in? Because he posed for pictures with the people he was sitting next to:

In fact, it seems like he is willing to pose for pictures with just about everybody who asks. Girls at the pool in Vegas. Little boys at the mall. This guy. Anybody.

Contrast that with our former sports icon, LeBron James. This story came up on Twitter via @WayneEmbrysKids (click on it to enlarge):

For all that we've always been told about how well LeBron handles himself, and the media, we haven't heard a lot of stories about him being particularly gracious to his fans. Which I guess is his right. It would just be nice if somebody who calls himself "King James" remembered that he only gets to be the king on the shoulders of ordinary folks like you and me. He is who he is because fans appreciate his greatness, not simply because he possesses greatness.

So far, it seems like Johnny Football gets that. He's handled everything -- the media's dumb questions, fans asking for pictures of him everywhere -- with remarkable poise.

Let's hope he can handle blitzing linebackers with a similar poise.