Thursday, December 30, 2010

In College Football, Even the Nitpicky Rules Matter

There are still 11 days until college football’s national championship game between Oregon and Auburn in Glendale, Arizona.

Let’s hope head coaches Gene Chizik of Auburn and Chip Kelly of Oregon are reminding their players that not following every rule on the field could be the difference between becoming national champs and becoming, well, the Buffalo Bills of college football.

Even the nitpicky rules matter in college football, something we were reminded of during Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and Kansas State at Yankee Stadium.

Let’s hope Kelly and Chizik show their players the video of Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn catching a touchdown pass that cut Syracuse’s lead to 36-34 with 1:13 left after which Hilburn cost the Wildcats a legitimate chance to tie the score because of an “excessive celebration” penalty.

According to the rules, any action by a player that draws undue attention to himself is guilty of excessive celebration, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.

How did Hilburn break the rule?

He raised his right hand to his helmet and saluted the crowd in the back of the end zone.

So what, you say?

You’ve seen other players do much worse than Hilburn without being penalized, you say?

I agree with you.

The night before, in the Alamo Bowl, Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackman decided to run parallel to the goal line for several seconds just to call more attention to himself before he scored a touchdown.

Blackman was not penalized.

But he should have been.

Whether you like the excessive celebration rule or not, it exists and it’s supposed to be enforced.

If not for Hilburn’s act of self-aggrandizement, Kansas State would have attempted a two-point conversion from the 3-yard line as usual. But the penalty pushed the ball back to the 18-yard line.

From the 18, a low-percentage pass by Kansas State into the end zone fell incomplete and Syracuse held on to win.

Never mind that Hilburn’s behavior in the Pinstripe Bowl was not nearly as self-absorbed as Blackman’s in the Alamo Bowl.

Never mind that the way zebra-shirted officials call college football games is wildly inconsistent.

What matters is the excessive celebration penalty has been on the books for years, yet players continue to violate the rule by diving into the end zone, or dancing, or pointing contemptuously at an opponent, or pointing vaingloriously to himself in nearly every college game.

Since coaches don’t know whether the crew officiating their game will be strict or lenient until play actually begins, the best thing to do is remind players not to do anything stupid on the field—something that could cost the game a national championship and force that player to wear a figurative pair of goat horns for the rest of his life.

Think about it. The only thing saving Hilburn from a lifetime of national ridicule is he committed his selfish act in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, a game most sports fans didn’t bother to watch.

But if an Auburn Tiger or an Oregon Duck who worships at the Shrine of Kanye West decides to behave like Hilburn on January 10 and costs his team a chance to win or tie the national championship game, then he will deserve every bit of criticism that comes his way.

And so will the head coach who should have taught him better.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Letterman's Ironically Funny Take on LeBron James

Now it should be clear why LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to, in his words, “take his talents to South Beach” and join the Miami Heat:

He wanted to be more than just another great basketball player whose team fails annually to win an NBA championship.

And he wanted to transcend basketball and become a hot topic of general conversation.

While it remains to be seen if James will achieve the former, there’s no doubt he has accomplished the latter.

Broadcasting legends David Letterman and Marv Albert had a spirited debate last night on Letterman’s “Late Show” about James’s decision.

“If LeBron had announced that he’s staying in Cleveland for three more years, he would be the most beloved athlete in sports today,” Letterman opined, although he failed to get Albert (or me) to agree with his take.

“As a free agent, LeBron had a right to leave,” retorted Albert, the indisputable voice of the NBA. “He spent seven years in Cleveland, and he no longer believed he could win a championship there.”

But Midwestern states like Ohio are hurting, Letterman argued, and James would have given a boost to Cleveland’s economy by staying with the Cavaliers. By turning his back on the Rust Belt in favor of the fun and sun of Miami, James had unwittingly become the most vilified athlete in sports.

At that point, Albert served up a facial, comparing James’s decision to leave Cleveland to Letterman’s decision to leave NBC’s 12:30 am time slot in 1992 for CBS’s 11:30 pm slot and a head-to-head battle against Jay Leno.

Remember that game?

When “Tonight Show” icon Johnny Carson retired, NBC executives bypassed Carson’s choice Letterman and gave the coveted gig to the less edgy, more generic Leno.

“NBC didn’t want me,” Letterman told Albert as his studio audience applauded.

Actually, NBC still wanted Letterman, just not at 11:30. Letterman did not have to leave NBC. He chose to leave, because his ego had been hurt.

James chose to leave Cleveland, because of management’s failure to surround him with the kind of complementary talent Michael Jordan played with in Chicago and Kobe Bryant plays with in Los Angeles.

Letterman’s take, then, is at once ironic and funny. His decision to shun The Peacock for The Eye stemmed from a desire to better himself while sticking it to his former boss. Just like James’s.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Letterman and James discuss how much they have in common on a future “Late Show”?

As Albert would say, Yesss!

Monday, December 20, 2010

ESPN does UConn Women a Disservice

ESPN has been around since 1979. I’m old enough to remember when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network used its flagship program, "SportsCenter," to report news, not to try to create news or shape public opinion.

I remember when a credible SportsCenter anchor like Bob Ley or the late Tom Mees would have reported the story of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team this way:

"The UConn Lady Huskies extended the longest winning streak in women’s college basketball history to 88 games with a victory over Ohio State at Madison Square Garden yesterday."

That’s it. Concise and, above all, accurate.

But that’s not the ESPN of today. The S in ESPN now stands for Selling hyperbole.

The ESPN of today wants you to believe that any significant athletic accomplishment in this era is better than anything that happened before. If ESPN can convince you of that, then the network believes you will be more willing to buy whatever it wants to sell.

And the ESPN of today is always selling.

Here is how ESPN anchor Hannah Storm — a middle-aged broadcaster who should know better — breathlessly reported the Connecticut women’s story on SportsCenter this morning:

"The UConn women won their 88th consecutive basketball game yesterday, tying the record set by John Wooden’s legendary UCLA Bruins from 1971 to 1974….The Lady Huskies can set the all-time record with a victory at home tomorrow night against Florida State."

It is asinine to compare women’s basketball to men’s basketball. They are completely different sports.

ESPN does a disservice to the Connecticut women by trying to force a comparison between their winning streak in a sport that has not yet evolved into a game played above the rim to the achievement of the Wooden-coached, Bill Walton-led UCLA teams of the 1970s.

Such a bogus comparison insults the intelligence of the ESPN audience. It also gives people license to dismiss women’s basketball, for that sport will never be on a par with the men’s game, given the stark differences in athleticism and physicality between male and female players.

It does not matter if the Connecticut women win 150 consecutive games. Their streak will never be better than, or comparable to, the UCLA streak.

The streaks are different, because the sports are different.

Unless Maya Moore or any other member of the Connecticut women’s team is capable of stepping onto the court and performing creditably against today’s male players — and we know that would not be the case — there should be no attempt to equate women’s basketball, past or present, to men’s basketball.

Yet ESPN insists on forging an apples-and-oranges comparison between the UConn women and the UCLA men, apparently after arriving at the simplistic conclusion that apples and oranges are both fruits.

ESPN did the same nonsense several years ago when Tennessee women’s hoops coach Pat Summit got close to winning as many games as Dean Smith and Bob Knight won in men’s college basketball.

For weeks, we heard babbling from "SportsCenter" anchors about Summit’s bid to "break Smith’s record" or "pass Knight."

The Summit hyperbole became so unrelenting that I switched channels whenever ESPN aired a story about her. Many viewers did likewise, not because of any harsh feelings about Summit, a marvelous coach and teacher, but because of the contrived nature of ESPN’s reporting.

I sent ESPN a letter at the time, urging the network to stop doing a disservice to Summit. That she has won the most games in women’s basketball history is enough. Just report it that way. Don’t try to force down our throats a comparison between her and Dean Smith, or her and Bob Knight, as if their sports are exactly the same.

Since ESPN has ignored my advice, I will have no choice but to respond this way during Wednesday morning’s "SportsCenter":

"Last night, the UConn Lady Huskies broke UCLA’s record with their 89th..."


Monday, December 6, 2010

Fantasia Goodwin: A Hoopster You Should Know

from the archives comes the story of fantasia goodwin, a young woman who overcame adversity as a child and an unexpected pregnancy during her collegiate basketball career to become a star player at syracuse university. She also earned her degree.

Someone making the giant leap from Division III Player of the Year to a major Division I program would usually be wracked with anxiety, wondering if she truly belonged in the big leagues.

Not former Syracuse junior swingman Fantasia Goodwin. Not after surviving a childhood so harrowing it would have crushed the spirit of someone less determined.

"Basketball saved my life," said Goodwin, who as a preteen was placed on suicide watch and shuttled among more foster homes than she can remember. "Where I am now compared to where I was is something I owe all to basketball."

Where she is now is at a Big East school with a domed stadium that seats 30,000-plus for basketball. Where she is now is on campus taking summer courses with the goal of eventually earning a Master’s degree in sociology.

"I want to work with kids because there are plenty of kids in group homes who were like I was," she said. "They don’t know what they want to be. If I can inspire them, then it would be worth it."

Goodwin, 20, had to grow up fast to avoid becoming a victim of the hardscrabble Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood in which she was raised without a responsible parent close at hand.

"She’s been on her own since she was very young," said Keith Cieplicki, Goodwin's first coach at Syracuse. "And she has demonstrated an extraordinary level of maturity on and off the court."

Goodwin recounts her tumultuous upbringing in such a relaxed tone that it would seem to indicate she won’t be intimidated while competing against Big East powers such as Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame. She has already defeated foes more formidable.

"My mother didn’t have a job," she said. "She was a drug fiend. That’s why she died (in 1997). She was in a coma for a year and a half before that. I was living with my two younger sisters at the time, and I had to try to take care of them because my mom was never around."

Nor was her father, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"My relationship with him is getting better," Goodwin said. "I don’t know if it’s because of basketball, but he’s real proud of me. He’s got my press clippings and he’s starting to play his role (as father)."

Goodwin’s sisters, Essence and Natasha remain in New York’s foster care system. Like Goodwin, they are considered wards of the state until age 21.

"I remember wanting to kill myself," she said, "because I was in so much pain and I didn’t know what else to do."

Fortunately, she found basketball at age 11 — and found herself.

In two seasons at Monroe College in New York City, Goodwin scored a National Junior College Athletic Association Division III record 1,681 points, smashing the old record of 1,456 set in 1995.

Goodwin established NJCAA D-III records for career scoring average (27.1), season scoring average (28.0) and points in a season (867), and twice she led the nation in rebounding (17.0 and 15.6).

A 6-0 southpaw with enough versatility to play in the backcourt or up front, Goodwin joins an Orange team in need of rebuilding after a 9-18 season.

"Fantasia is a tremendous player and person," Cieplicki said. "She shows a great love of the game and a toughness to find a way to succeed. These are very attractive characteristics to us."

In 2005-06, Goodwin led Monroe to a 36-0 record and the national championship. Twice a first-team D-III All-America, she became the only D-III player named to the 10-member Kodak All-America team for junior colleges and community colleges in 2005-06.

But her exploits occurred far from the bright lights and big arenas of the Big East. Usually, less than 100 people attended her D-III games at a high school gym in Bronx, N.Y.

Nevertheless, she has no doubts about being ready for prime time.

"Playing for Syracuse against better players is just going to make me better," said Goodwin, who sports on her left shoulder a tattoo of a basketball surrounded by the words TRUE TO THE GAME.

"Syracuse is a young team and I want to be one of the team leaders. I don’t want anybody to underestimate me. I’ve always proved people wrong whenever they’ve underestimated me."

Goodwin discovered basketball at The Graham School, a foster care facility in the New York City suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson. Jerry Leventhal, Graham’s vice president, became her first coach and legal guardian.

"There was a vulnerable, fragile side to her at that time," said Leventhal, who signed Goodwin’s national letter of intent. "She didn’t have structure, consistency and care in her past."

What she had was a knack for basketball, an innate sense of what to do on the court and when to do it. But her prowess did not surface immediately.

"In the first game she ever played," Leventhal said, "the referee threw the ball up and the girls started running. Except Fantasia. She froze. I called time-out and told her to play. At the time, I think she didn’t want everyone watching her considering everything that had happened in her life. But now, she’s very comfortable in the spotlight."

Comfortable, yes. Ostentatious, no.

While at Monroe, she used to keep her press clippings — including a Faces in the Crowd selection in the March 14, 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated — and awards in a box under her bed. This she did not because of concern about theft but because she didn’t want to seem like a show-off.

The box of hoop awards did not accompany the WNBA hopeful to Syracuse but are instead in the care of Charles and Deborah Mathis, who became her surrogate parents four years ago.

"We’ll always have a room in our home for Fantasia," said Charles Mathis, who lives in Reading, Pa. "We’ve done everything for her but adopt her. We really love this young lady."

The ranks of those singing Fantasia Goodwin’s praises could grow exponentially at sports-crazed Syracuse. Her name is a headline writer’s dream. Her multifaceted game and personal triumph over adversity make her easy to root for.

"I’m not afraid to let people know what I’ve been through because I’m still here and I’m succeeding," she said. "My story lets people know that if you find something you love to do and work hard at it, anything is possible."

Friday, December 3, 2010

LeBron James Gives Cleveland Beating It Deserves

On the day LeBron James returned to Cleveland to play for the first time against his former team, the Cavaliers, a woman in the city known as “the mistake by the lake,” looked fiercely into a camera and said, as if addressing the man himself, “LeBron, you are definitely the most hated man in Cleveland.”

Well, even if that comment were true, what exactly would it prevent LeBron from doing?

How would being “the most hated man in Cleveland” restrict his life or career options?

Just try convincing the people of Cleveland that life goes on after a basketball player decided to exercise his right to leave one team and sign with another as a free agent.

Clevelanders may never understand that the Cavaliers organization failed LeBron for seven years by not acquiring enough star talent to complement his unique and multifaceted skills.

Michael Jordan, brilliant as he was, won nothing in Chicago until the Bulls added future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen to the “supporting cast.”

Together, Jordan and Pippen won six NBA championships.

The best player with whom LeBron played in Cleveland was an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal last season.

One more time, Cleveland: LeBron signed with the Miami Heat because he knew the Cavaliers’ organization would never make the moves necessary to give him the best chance to win an NBA championship.

LeBron is not in basketball just for the money. He has plenty of money. He yearns to do what Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Elgin Baylor, among other NBA greats, could not—win at least one NBA championship.

Time will tell if LeBron’s partnership in Miami with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and team president (and perhaps future head coach) Pat Riley produces that coveted league title.

But it is undeniably clear that LeBron’s chances of holding aloft the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy, presented yearly to the NBA champions, improved exponentially when he packed his bags and, in his words, “took his talents to South Beach.”

As the Heat bludgeoned the Cavs 118-90 on December 2, LeBron heard numerous insulting chants while scoring a game-high 38 points.

Just one of those insulting chants bears repeating here: “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Why repeat that one? It underscores how ugly and despicable “fans” can be when things don’t go their way. (LeBron was reared by a single mother in an Akron, Ohio, housing project after his father left the family.)

Obviously, those hateful people were never truly fans of LeBron. Instead, they thought they owned him. They saw LeBron as their own athletically gifted version of Dred Scott—the former slave who was ruled three-fifths of a man in the worst Supreme Court decision ever.

“We made him rich,” one visibly disgusted Cavalier fan was heard saying on ESPN.

So this dolt believes no other NBA team would have paid LeBron a King James ransom as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft?

Not the New Jersey Nets? Not the Los Angeles Clippers? Not the Toronto Raptors?

Only Cleveland?


Cleveland, a city that has not won a league championship in any sport since the 1964 Browns, was extremely lucky to have LeBron represent its city for seven years.

Problem is the Cavaliers never put championship-caliber talent around him—the way the Bulls did for Jordan, the way the Los Angeles Lakers did for Kobe Bryant, the way the San Antonio Spurs did for Tim Duncan.

And that, Cleveland, is why he left.

So brace yourselves for more beatings. LeBron will be visiting you twice every season.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cam Newton: The Cloud over College Football

I don’t have a Heisman Trophy ballot, but if I did it would look like this:

(1) Cam Newton, quarterback, Auburn

(2) Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford

(3) LaMichael James, running back, Oregon

(4) Kellen Moore, quarterback, Boise State

(5) Patrick Patterson, safety, LSU

Since I’ve been paying close attention to college football all season, I would have to vote for Newton because the field leader of the undefeated Tigers is undoubtedly the best player in the sport.

I would vote for Newton even though he appears to be the second coming of Reggie Bush—the first Heisman Trophy winner ever to give back the award because all the dirt on how he came to be a running back at USC threaten to bury him.

Bush has done extremely well in the NFL, helping the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl in February, and I’m sure Newton will do well in the pros.

I’m also sure Newton will be a pro in 2012 because he’ll have no reason to return to Auburn, whether he was paid to play there or not.

For now, he’s a 6-foot-6, 250-pound cloud over college football.

By now we know that his father, Cecil Newton Sr., spoke with someone supposedly representing Mississippi State about a pay-to-play arrangement for his son.

That Cecil Newton Sr. is a pastor only makes this story more obscene than the average big-time college sports recruiting scandal.

Newton did not go to Mississippi State. He went to Auburn…after leaving the University of Florida, where he reportedly stole a laptop computer and was caught cheating on three separate occasions, and a Texas junior college, where he played last year.

Cam Newton “is a great man,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after Newton led the Tigers to a 49-31 victory over Georgia last Saturday.

A great college quarterback? Yes. A sensational athlete? Absolutely. But a great young man? Hardly.

Newton may well be remembered as the kamikaze who took Auburn football to heights even Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson—the school’s two Heisman Trophy winners—could not reach in the 1970s and ’80s, only to cause the school’s program to crash and burn after his departure.

Auburn is likely to lose everything because of the Newton affair: a Southeastern Conference division title, an SEC championship, an undefeated season, a national championship and a Heisman Trophy winner.

It would violate NCAA rules if Newton—or anyone representing Newton, e.g., his father the pastor—received money or financial incentives to attend Auburn.

Trouble is we’re not likely to find out if Newton got anything, and how much, and from whom before December 6, the final day on which Heisman votes can be submitted.

So voters have to vote for Newton based on what they’ve seen him do on the field. But voters also have to think harder this year about who their second choice would be—because he could well become the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner by default in a year or two.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sports Television Still in Need of Color Adjustment

Sports are not exempt from racial profiling. While the racial profiling in sportsworld is not as extreme or humiliating as that which exists in America’s airports and on the roads, it is mindless and infuriating nonetheless.

My skin crawled while watching an NBC Sports promo for this Sunday’s Patriots-Steelers football game. As NBC showed film of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (right), a voiceover announcer intoned, “the master mind.” Then we saw film of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (left) as the announcer said, “versus the master motivator.”

Both Belichick and Tomlin are Super Bowl-winning coaches. Belichick is white. Tomlin is black.

Why isn’t Tomlin credited with having a fine football mind? Why do media observers ascribe Tomlin’s success to an ability to give a fiery speech? Why are Tomlin and other black NFL playoff coaches past and present—men such as Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards and Dennis Green—reduced to mere “motivators”?

Racial profiling.

Before Tomlin became Pittsburgh’s head coach, he was the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator. Every week, he spent many hours breaking down film footage to develop game plans that included coverage and blitzing schemes designed to thwart an opposing offense.

Heady stuff. And Tomlin did it very well. The Vikings had the NFL’s top-rated defense during his tenure. And his work as Steelers coach has been so exemplary that no one believes Pittsburgh misses Bill Cowher.

Yet NBC could not bring itself to promote Patriots vs. Steelers as a battle of coaching masterminds.

Experience shows that both Super Bowl-winning coaches have to be white for that to happen.

Remember when Eric Mangini led the Jets to the playoffs in his first year as an NFL coach?

“Man-genius,” he was called. Or just “genius”? That is, until the Jets fired him after the 2008 season.

Did Mangini get dumb? Or was he never a “genius” in the first place, but rather the beneficiary of media hyperbole given to a successful white coach by a predominantly white sports media?

Mangini used to be the NFL’s youngest head coach. Raheem Morris is the NFL’s youngest head coach now.

Morris’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 5-3. Have you heard anyone call Morris a “genius” for turning around the previously woebegone Bucs? And you won’t hear it, even if the Bucs make the playoffs.

Racial profiling.

And it’s hardly limited to football.

On October 22, the night the Texas Rangers vanquished the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, former big-league catcher turned TV commentator John Flaherty said this about Texas manager Ron Washington: “He’s not the best Xs and Os guy in the world, but he gets his players to play hard.”

Flaherty, who works for the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, would have us believe all Washington does is motivate. The fact is Washington out-managed Yankees skipper Joe Girardi so severely that, if not for a late Yankees’ rally in Game 1, Texas could have swept the best-of-seven series.

The list of baseball managers whose success has been attributed to an ability to motivate rather than an ability to strategize and make smart in-game decisions includes Washington, Dusty Baker and two-time World Series winner Cito Gaston.

Not surprisingly, all three are black.

A generation ago, we heard and read that successful black athletes were “natural athletes” while successful white athletes were “smart” and “brainy” and “savvy.”

Some older commentators still engage in this kind of racial profiling. (Pay close attention to Bill Raftery’s work on ESPN’s and CBS’s college basketball telecasts, particularly when he talks about point guards.)

Fortunately, most people who get paid to comment on sports have become enlightened enough to drop the “natural athlete” references or the stereotype that light skin = smart and dark skin = physical.

Alas, we still have to smarten up the ones who routinely subject black coaches and managers to racial stereotypes.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters

With every powerful serve and deft ground stroke, with every graceful volley and determined charge to the net, black tennis players – from Hall of Famers Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong, and Yannick Noah to future legends James Blake and the sisters Venus Williams and Serena Williams – have forced open the sport’s shuttered gates and demanded to be acknowledged.

In Charging the Net, Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose draw on personal interviews and extensive research to chronicle the humiliations and triumphs of blacks in professional tennis from the 1940s to the present. For many fans and writers Ashe, Gibson, and the Williams sisters personify the achievement of African-Americans in tennis, but others too have made their mark. Charging the Net spotlights a wide range of competitors as well as the American Tennis Association, an organization that thrived despite racial segregation, thanks to such benefactors as Dr. R. Walter Johnson.

The book also introduces readers to two black officials whose success was short-lived; both have sued the United States Tennis Association, alleging discrimination based on race, gender, and age.

Harlem-trained, Harvard-educated James Blake, who overcame career-threatening injuries to achieve World Top Ten status, has written a Foreword to Charging the Net. The Afterword is written by Robert Ryland, the first black to compete in a major college tournament, who later found the doors to tennis’s premier venues marked “Whites Only.” With a clear vision, this eighty-six-year-old coach now looks at how far blacks in tennis have come and how far they have yet to travel.

With 8 pages of photographs.

Cecil Harris has written on sports for Newsday, the New York Post, The Sporting News, and USA Today, and has covered tennis for The Indianapolis Star and for Gannett Suburban Newspapers (now The Journal News) in Westchester County, New York. His other books include Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey and Call the Yankees My Daddy: Reflections on Baseball, Race, and Family. He lives in Yonkers, New York.

Larryette Kyle-DeBose is a player-captain in the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association. She has worked as a photojournalist for the Swazi Times in Africa and is the author of The African-American Guide to Real Estate Investing. She lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Alex Rodriguez joins baseball's 600-home run club

With one mighty swing on August 4, Alex Rodriguez made history.

The New York Yankees third baseman belted a fastball over the center field fence in the first inning at Yankee Stadium and became only the seventh player in Major League Baseball history to hit 600 career home runs.

Rodriguez, 35, also became the youngest player to reach the 600-home run mark. Rodriguez, a right-handed batter hit the historic home run off Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Shawn Marcum in the first inning of a game the Yankees won, 5-1.

After Rodriguez was met at home plate by his happy teammates, a crowd of 47,659 gave him a standing ovation. Because the crowd continued to cheer, Rodriguez emerged from the Yankees’ dugout and waved his batting helmet to the fans.

The other players to hit at least 600 home runs are Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa.
Rodriguez is the only man on the list who is still playing.

Rodriguez hit his 599th career home run in a July 22 victory against the Kansas City Royals. That means it took him 12 games and nearly two full weeks to hit No. 600. He had gone 17 at-bats without a base hit before the big home run.

Rodriguez is a 13-time All-Star, and he has been one of baseball’s finest players since his pro career began with the Seattle Mariners in 1994. He switched from shortstop to third base when he joined the Yankees in 2004 because the Yankees already had an All-Star shortstop, Derek Jeter.

Although he is the highest-paid player in baseball, making a reported $27.5 million a year, Rodriguez is not a sure bet to make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where the sport’s greatest players are celebrated. That’s because in 2009, after many years of denials, Rodriguez admitted he took steroids – an illegal drug – to try to improve his performances earlier in his career.

Medical experts say steroids help athletes work out for a longer period of time and recover faster from a workout so they can get stronger, and that gives them an unfair advantage over other athletes.

But because Rodriguez said he took steroids in 2003, several years before baseball began testing for the illegal drug, baseball officials did not punish him for it.

Rodriguez has not failed a drug test since baseball began steroids testing.
Many believe he will someday pass Bonds’s total of 762 and become baseball’s all-time home run king.

Age: 35
Date of birth: July 27, 1975
Birthplace: New York, New York
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 225 pounds
Job: Baseball player
Current team: New York Yankees
Position: Third base
Previous teams: Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers
Previous position: Shortstop
Reported annual salary: $27.5 million
Family: Divorced with two daughters

(as of August 7, 2010)
1. Barry Bonds 762
2. Hank Aaron 755
3. Babe Ruth 714
4. Willie Mays 660
5. Ken Griffey Jr. 630
6. Sammy Sosa 609
7. Alex Rodriguez 600

J-Lo & Tyler in, Ellen & Kara out on 'Idol'? It's hard to judge

Networks at the Fox Television Network have yet to confirm or deny reports about major changes to America’s highest-rated TV show, “American Idol.”

As auditions for the 2011 season take place around the country, starry-eyed contestants still don’t know who will be judging their singing performances when the show returns for its 10th season in January.

Viewers knew sharp-tongued judge Simon Cowell would be leaving after this year’s “Idol” to bring “X Factor,” a talent show he created in England, to American audiences on Fox.

But “Idol” fans are buzzing over reports that judges Ellen DeGeneres, who joined the show this year, and Kara DioGuardi, who joined last year, are out. Word is they’ll be replaced by Steven Tyler, lead singer of the famed rock group Aerosmith, and popular singer-actress Jennifer Lopez.

The presence of J-Lo would give “Idol” more star power at the judge’s table than the show has ever had. Not even Paula Abdul could compare. Abdul, a quirky singer-dancer-choreographer, left “Idol” in a contract dispute in 2008.

DeGeneres, the host of an award-winning TV show, says she won’t return, citing a demanding work schedule and her reluctance to give negative criticism to “Idol” contestants.

DioGuardi, a singer-songwriter, reportedly has been fired. According to some reports, Lopez has agreed to do the show only if she were the only female judge.

Tyler replacing Cowell could raise eyebrows because “Idol” has long favored pop music singers, and Tyler performs rock music such as the 1980s hit, “Walk This Way.”

If the changes become official, Randy Jackson, a producer and guitarist, would be the only judge left from the original cast. And you may not be able to tell the other judges without a scorecard.

America takes part in Hiroshima ceremony for first time

Each year on August 6, the Japanese city of Hiroshima holds a ceremony to remember the atomic bombing of their city on that date in 1945. The explosion killed 200,000 instantly. Many more died because of burns and radiation illness.

The United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in retaliation for Japan’s attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 – an attack that led to America’s involvement in World War II.

The bomb was nicknamed “Little Boy” by those aboard the Air Force bomber Enola Gay.

Because of the tragic event linking America to Hiroshima, our country had chosen not to participate in that city’s annual day of remembrance.

Until this year. U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos took part in the solemn public ceremony, which included the ringing of a bell at a Buddhist temple and the release of a flock of doves. Doves are an international symbol of peace.

For years, America’s reluctance to participate was seen as a way to avoid having to apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima and another Japanese city, Nagasaki, during World War II.

Roos offered no apology or public statement of any kind during the ceremony. But his presence was largely seen as an attempt to promote peace and greater understanding between the U.S. and Japan.

So was the visit of Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba to The White House in January. Mayor Akiba invited President Obama to visit Hiroshima when he travels to Japan in November as part of an event honoring Mr. Obama and other recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The White House has not said whether President Obama will visit Hiroshima.

America has long held the position that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrific as they were, helped shorten World War II and prevented a U.S. invasion of Japan that would have led to more deaths.

Japan, which is now a pacifist, or non-aggressive, nation, believes the bombings showed the world what mass destruction nuclear weapons can cause, and that is why they must be eliminated everywhere.

Should America formally apologize to Hiroshima? Today, even the opinions of those who survived the bombing are divided.

“I want President Obama to apologize,” said Tadashi Takahashi, 84, an antiwar advocate. “But even more I want what he wants – a world without nuclear weapons.”

“There is no point in apologizing now, after 65 years,” said Akihiro Takahashi, 79, the former head of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “We want President Obama to see with his own eyes what really happened here. This will give him stronger willpower to eliminate nuclear weapons.”


(1) Should President Obama visit Hiroshima during his trip to Japan this fall?
(2) Should President Obama apologize for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
(3) Should every country that has nuclear weapons destroy them?

Note: The news item used in researching this article did not say whether Tadashi Takahashi and Akihiro Takahashi are related.

Wyclef Jean to Run for President of Haiti

Singer-songwriter Wyclef Jean, who for many years has been an advocate for Haiti, now wants to be president of his native country.

Jean, 37, submitted the paperwork August 5 to run in the election set for Sunday, November 28. The winner will be elected to a five-year term. Political analysts don’t expect President Rene Preval to be reelected.

People had speculated for years about the political ambitions of Jean (pronounced Zhahn), who was born in Haiti but moved to New York City when he was 9.

Jean said he knows critics will say he’s not eligible to run because the Haitian constitution requires a candidate to have lived in Haiti for five straight years prior to an election.

“They’re going to attack me in the next two weeks,” Jean said. “They think they’re going to get me with the dual citizenship thing. But I have a Haitian passport with a green card.”

A three-time Grammy Award winner best known for being part of the group The Fugees, Jean became highly visible in Haiti after a January 12 earthquake devastated the Caribbean island. The earthquake killed 230,000 and left 2 million homeless in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Yele Haiti, a charity founded by Jean, collected millions of dollars earmarked for earthquake relief and recovery efforts. Much of the money came from people texting their donations.

A 2006 tax return showed one-third of the donations to Yele Haiti had been used instead for miscellaneous expenses. At a news conference in January, Jean tearfully denied knowledge of the financial problems.

Actor Sean Penn, whose J/P Relief Organization has aided Haitians, said on August 4 that in the months after the earthquake Jean “has been virtually silent for those of us in Haiti. He has been a non-presence.”

Although Jean has no political experience, he says he believes he can inspire Haitians in a way similar to that of the first African-American president.

“The United States has Barack Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean,” he said.


* Haiti has a long history of political instability. Dr. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, are among the past presidents widely seen as brutal and corrupt by the people of Haiti.

* Half of Haiti’s 9 million residents are under the age of 25. That could bode well for Wyclef Jean’s campaign since he is very popular among Haitian youth.

* Pras Michel, Jean’s cousin, and Lauryn Hill were the other members of The Fugees. The group’s second album, The Score, won two Grammys.

* Jean’s uncle Raymond Joseph, a former Haitian Ambassador to the U.S., also plans to run for president? “We talked about this; we talk all the time,” Joseph said. “We are family. We won’t allow politics to divide.” There is talk that Joseph and Jean may campaign together. Relatives campaigning together while running against each other for the same job? That’s something you may never see in American politics.

A Supreme Achievement: Elena Kagan Joins America's High Court

With the lifetime appointment of Elena Kagan, three women will serve together on the United States Supreme Court for the first time.

Kagan, a New York City native, joins Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on America’s highest court. Kagan, 50, will be the youngest of the nine members.

Both Sotomayor, who was nominated by President Obama last year, and Bader Ginsburg were born in New York City. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia grew up in New York City.

During an August 6 ceremony at The White House hosted by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Kagan thanked her parents. “I wouldn’t be standing here today without their love, support and devotion,” said Kagan, the 112th Supreme Court Justice.

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to sit on the High Court and decide many of America’s important legal issues. She was nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and retired in 2006.

Kagan graduated from Harvard University Law School, as did President Obama. She is the first Supreme Court justice in nearly 40 years with no experience as a judge. She is a former dean of Harvard Law School, and she had served as solicitor general under former President Bill Clinton.

After President Obama appointed Kagan for the Supreme Court, she had to be confirmed by a majority of the members of the U.S. Senate. Since there are 50 states and each state has two senators, a total of 100 senators voted.

Kagan was confirmed by a vote of 63-37 to replace the retired John Paul Stevens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the Democratic senator to vote against her. Five Republicans and the Senate’s two independent members voted for her.

President Obama said the senators “got a pretty good look at Elena Kagan…her formidable intelligence, her rich understanding of our Constitution…and occasionally her irreverent sense of humor.”


The U.S. Supreme Court traditionally begins its session on the first Monday in October. Here are the nine members and the years they were nominated:

Chief Justice John Roberts (2003); Associate Justices: Antonin Scalia (1986); Anthony Kennedy (1988); Clarence Thomas (1991); Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993); Stephen G. Breyer (1994); Samuel Alito (1994); Sonia Sotomayor (2009); and Elena Kagan (2010).

Ask students to come up with words and terms that mean the same as: irreverent – making fun of, mocking, saucy, flippant

majority – best part, more, most

What does a solicitor general do? The solicitor general is the chief lawyer representing the federal government, and decides what legal position the U.S. will take in the Supreme Court.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sports Team Owners Are Still Channeling P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum, the 19th century entertainment impresario, best known for creating the world-famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, said famously, "There’s a sucker born every minute."

Barnum, who died in 1891, could not have known how much he would have in common with professional sports franchise owners in the 21st century.

No way could Barnum have foreseen how the sham of "personal seat licenses" (PSLs), used for the building of pro sports teams at greatly reduced costs for team owners and exorbitant costs for sports fans, would be such a cash cow today.

Imagine people being asked to pay for the right to buy tickets to a newly constructed stadium, as if ticket-buying was not already an inalienable right of any citizen. And then imagine millions of fans falling for this scam – paying a team for a "license" to buy a seat and then paying again for the actual overpriced seat.

Unfortunately, common sense has not permeated the minds of enough fans to make them say, "We are going to stop paying for personal seat licenses and say to team owners. We’ll just buy tickets after you build the stadium or arena instead of giving the owners an interest-free loan worth millions of dollars."

If fans ever wake up, then the odious and usurious PSL sham would end post-haste.

Old P.T. must be laughing over in his pine box and wondering why, oh why, didn’t I think of PSLs?

Yes, there are suckers born every minute, and they walk around wearing the logo of their favorite team while believing they have a personal say in how the team conducts business.

After all, it’s "my" team, right? Yeah. Sure, it is.

That’s why the Baltimore Colts packed up their belongings in the dead of night and the football team moved to Indianapolis. And why the Browns left Cleveland high and dry and became the Baltimore Ravens. And why Al Davis moved his – not Oakland’s – Raiders to Los Angeles because he got a better deal only to move his – not L.A.’s – Raiders back to Oakland because he got a better deal. And why Davis may yet move his Raiders out of Oakland again in pursuit of a better deal.

Davis has used the PSL sham in two different cities, with perhaps a third to come.

But this is not just about Davis. His brethren in the owners’ sky boxes are doing the same thing.

The New York Jets are still peddling PSLs in the hope of filling seats at the new stadium in New Jersey that they’ll share with the New York Giants, the stadium still without a corporate name. In radio and TV ads, the Jets say ticket prices have been "reduced by 50 percent."

Usually, that last sentence would end with an exclamation point. But in this case, a 50 percent decrease is the difference between a high-priced seat and an obscenely priced seat – after the fan/sucker pays for the right to buy the overpriced seat.

The New York Yankees reduced ticket prices by 50 percent for their best seats at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009. The cost went from $2,500 per ticket per game to $1,250 per ticket per game. Still, those seats have gone largely unsold despite the Yankees’ winning the World Series in 2009 and being in first place this year.

It is tempting to assume that sports fans are finally waking up because of the vast rows of empty seats behind home plate at nearly every baseball game, or at courtside or rinkside of almost every televised pro basketball or hockey game. However, I’m convinced the empty seats have infinitely more to do with America’s ongoing economic recession than fans’ refusal to overpay the owner of their favorite team.

When the recession ends (and it should eventually), more new stadiums and arenas with even more luxury suites for the rich will be built. And even more middle-class fans will be asked to spend hard-earned money for the right to spend even more of their hard-earned money for tickets to watch the games in person.

That is, unless sports fans finally see the light and prove me and P.T. Barnum wrong.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Yawn Greets A-Rod's Pursuit of Baseball History

On this his 35th birthday, Alex Rodriguez will take mighty swings for the New York Yankees in pursuit of career home run No. 600.

Normally, this fact would be of great interest to this lifelong baseball fan and former Yankees beat writer. But A-Rod’s bid to become the seventh man in major league history to hit 600 homers only reminds me of B.B. King’s biggest hit: “The Thrill is Gone.”

To cheer A-Rod’s every at-bat, as many fans will tonight at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, is to deny reality.

That is because Rodriguez is a tainted player. Tainted by his own weakness of character, which compelled him to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Rodriguez has said he used illegal drugs for three years, from 2001-03, in what he described as an ill-advised attempt to justify the then-record $273 million, 10-year contract he signed with the Texas Rangers. But he still cheated the game whether he did it for three years or three games, or whether he’s still cheating in a league that does not give players in-season blood tests to detect use of human growth hormones.

It’s impossible for me to get excited about A-Rod hitting home runs because it’s impossible to know how many of his long balls have been artificially enhanced.

It’s hard to look at A-Rod and not see the player who lied to Katie Couric’s face—and to ours—when he said on “60 Minutes” he had never used illegal drugs and never, ever would.

Because of his nationally televised turn as Pinocchio, A-Rod will always be an athlete of immense talent, and almost no credibility.

The Yankee fan in me wants to see A-Rod do well only because it helps my team. But as an adult who believes it is always best to do the right thing, I find him an extremely difficult player for whom to root.

That will be the case three years from now when A-Rod is likely to hit his 700th homer. And in the year 2015 when a 40-year-old A-Rod figures to supplant another morally challenged slugger, Barry Bonds, atop the all-time home run list.

I’ll never forget the excitement of watching Monday Night Baseball on NBC on April 8, 1974, the night Henry Aaron—baseball’s true home run king—hit No. 715 off Al Downing. “Hammerin’ Hank” had eclipsed Babe Ruth, “The Bambino,” “The Sultan of Swat,” as the greatest home run hitter ever.

But on August 7, 2007, the night Bonds hit No. 756 off Mike Bacsik to surpass Aaron, I didn’t even watch the game on ESPN.

Bonds was not worthy of the most coveted individual record in team sports then, and he isn’t now. Nor is the almost certainly drug-stained Sammy Sosa worthy of his current position of sixth place on the all-time home run list, just below Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

A-Rod, barring injury or a sudden act of vengeance from the baseball gods, will pass Sosa, Griffey, Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds in the next five years. And he’ll do it in the uniform of the most successful franchise in all of team sports, a franchise representing the media capital of the world.

It will be treated as a big story in many quarters. Not this one.

When A-Rod hits No. 763, I won’t hear cheering but instead the sound of B.B. King’s famous guitar Lucille:

“The thrill is gone

“The thrill has gone away…

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert is NBA's Worst Owner

Sports don’t build character. Sports reveal character.

This is as true of athletes as of those involved in the business of sports.

A lack of character is what compelled Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert to rant like a petulant child after he lost superstar LeBron James to the Miami Heat and got nothing in return.

Now, Gilbert tells visitors to the Cavaliers’ website, the Associated Press and anyone else willing to listen that LeBron is "cowardly," "selfish" and "a quitter."

If that’s how Gilbert honestly feels, then why did he offer LeBron $120 million to re-sign with the team?

Why did he not make it known through the NBA grapevine that the Cavs would do a sign-and-trade deal with any team that wants (and can afford) a "cowardly, selfish quitter?"

That way the Cavs and their fans would have come away with something other than the usual pain and ennui associated with life in Cleveland.

And the Cavs would now have a chance to back up Gilbert’s boast that Cleveland will win an NBA title before LeBron does.

The unavoidable fact is, if you look at the Cavs’ roster today — sans LeBron — the team will not win 30 basketball games.

Gilbert needs to explain why he offered $120 million to a player he now says "quit" in Games 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics?

"You can look at the tapes," Gilbert whines.

Actually, there is no need to review the tapes of the four games Cleveland lost in that series. If you’re a basketball fan, then you already know LeBron played in that series with an inflamed right elbow.

Why did he do that? He was trying to win a championship on a one-man team. As LeBron knew throughout his seven years in Cleveland, if he didn’t do it, it was not going to get done.

Cavs’ management and ownership, which includes Gilbert first and foremost, never surrounded LeBron with the supporting players necessary to win a championship. There were no Pippens and Rodmans, no Odoms and Artests, no Gasols and Fishers.

After seven years, LeBron concluded that the Cavs had failed him. Thus, it was time to move on.

And being born in nearby Akron should not mean LeBron must die on his sword every spring like some tragic Shakespearean character in pursuit of an NBA crown.

Although I find LeBron as self-absorbed as any athlete I’ve seen, he is also smart and shrewd. I believe LeBron sensed that with Gilbert as owner, the Cavs would never take a by-any-means-necessary approach to winning an NBA championship. From Gilbert, he would hear only rhetoric, not see substantive action.

Gilbert bought the Cavs from the respected Gund family, which had signed LeBron straight out of high school with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft.

But for all of Gilbert’s wealth — a substantial portion of which was generated by LeBron himself — the man has a serious character deficiency. And no clue about how to maintain a successful franchise.

Now, Cleveland has no LeBron and no new players from a sign-and-trade deal. Just a petty, bombastic owner. A corporate mistake by the lake.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Late Show with Meb Keflezighi

On the day after the New York City Marathon, I always watch "Late Show with David Letterman" and wait for the moment when that year’s marathon champions jog onto the stage during Letterman’s monologue and, without saying a word, run down the steps, up the aisle and out of the theater as the audience applauds.

Letterman always tells us who the runners are, but we never hear from them. Often, that’s because the winners are Africans who aren’t fluent in English.

That’s not the case with this year’s men’s champion: Meb Keflezighi (Kef-LEHZ-gee).

He was born in the African nation of Eritrea, in a village without electricity. He’s also a U.S. citizen, a San Diego resident and a UCLA graduate with a compelling story.

He deserves more than the usual token jog on "Letterman."

Meb’s parents moved his family of 11 children out of Eritrea when a war against Ethiopia would have forced a boy his age into the military.

The Keflezighis lived briefly in Italy, as a safe haven. But the family’s intention was always to come to the USA and live its version of the American Dream.

Meb became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and became a four-time NCAA champion in middle-distance running. He still holds the U.S. record at 10,000 meters (27 minutes, 13.98 seconds set in 2001).

Meb then turned to the marathon and became one of the world’s best, winning the Olympic silver medal in 2004 and, less than two months later, finishing second in the New York City Marathon.

But Meb’s career was thought to be over two years ago when, at age 32, he suffered a stress fracture in his hip during the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York. The pain was so intense he had to literally crawl to the bathroom.

The self-appointed experts in distance running wrote Meb off. He had never actually won a marathon.

Meb was too old, they said. Broken down. Washed up.

Ryan Hall, a fair-haired Californian and Meb’s close friend, was America’s great marathon hope, they said.

But Meb refused to quit.

He had already proven an American could compete well against the best marathon runners in the world. On Sunday, he proved an American could beat the best.

Pulling away from a strong field in the 24th mile, Meb won the race in a personal-best time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds.

He is the first African-American champion in the 40-year history of the race, and the first American to win in New York since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

And because the New York City Marathon and USA Men’s Marathon Championship were held concurrently, Meb won his first two marathon titles on the same day.

"You visualize it and visualize it and when reality hits, it’s pretty sweet," said Meb, who defeated runner-up Robert K. Cheruiyot of Kenya, a four-time Boston Marathon champion, by 41 seconds.

Meb wore a USA jersey to which he pointed with pride as he had ran alone to the finish line. He pocketed $200,000--$130,000 for the New York City Marathon title, $40,000 for the USA Men’s Marathon crown and a $30,000 time bonus for finishing in under 2:10.

Meb, a married father of two, now has a "platform." Now, he’s a "name." And that's why he got a well-deserved speaking role on "Letterman."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Letterman intoned, "here is tonight’s Top 10 List delivered by your 2009 New York City Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi!"

It was a moment worth staying up for.