Thursday, April 27, 2006

Everyone knows that there is no crying in baseball. But apparently there’s quite a bit of it in women’s basketball, especially if you choose not to pretend that it is the greatest sporting event in the world. I fully recognize that this year’s women’s Final Four was a huge success and many people found it very entertaining. That doesn’t mean that I would ever desire to watch it though, and according to some, that makes me a bad person.

Earlier this week, the writer Brent, from the Paradigm Blog created a lot of controversy when he questioned NCAA President Dr. Myles Brand for giving an interview discussing why women’s basketball is given so little respect. Brent was widely criticized by many female basketball players for his remarks, but I don’t think he was too far off in his assessment.

Brent said, “People don't hate or disrespect women's sports. What they hate is having something shoved down their throats that's not entertaining and not played with a high skill level.”

That sums up a lot of people’s feelings about women’s basketball. The only problem is that they aren’t allowed to feel that way because any time someone dares to express that opinion, they get a dozen people screaming at them about what a great game women’s basketball is and how the women competing are such fine athletes.

I’m not going to question that the girls that compete in college basketball don’t work hard and aren’t fine athletes, because I’m sure they are. But that doesn’t mean it’s played at a particularly high skill level or that I find it in any way entertaining.

Part of what makes sports entertaining is watching athletes do something that you’re unable to do. I love watching basketball players throw down huge dunks, or go spinning and twisting through the lane to make an impossible lay-up. I love watching hockey players fire a blistering shot past a goalie. I love watching a quarterback throw a 40 yard into the arms of a leaping receiver. I’ll never be able to do any of those things, and watching someone else do them is exciting and entertaining.

The same can’t be said for women’s basketball. I can’t say for certain how a top women’s college basketball team would fair against a boy high school basketball team, but I’ve got a decent idea of how I would fare. I used to attend a small Division I school and in my spare time, loved to go down to the campus gym and play pick-up basketball. On a couple of occasions, members of the school’s women’s basketball team would come out and play. Most of the guys were afraid to guard a girl because they didn’t want to risk the embarrassment. I took the risk a couple of times though, and while I can’t say I was dominant, I can say that I more than held my own, often outscoring my female counterpart. That’s not to say that those female players, and their teammates were bad basketball players. In fact that team went on to make the NCAA women’s tournament later that season. It’s just saying that even though their skill level is high for them, it’s not high enough to arouse my interest.

The same goes for other women’s sports such as tennis. While I enjoy watching the amazing athleticism and contrasting styles of men’s tennis, I think watching two over-sized women stand glued to their respective baselines having a who-can-scream-louder contest to be incredibly boring.

The other, more important issue with women’s basketball is the way it is marketed. I understand that ESPN wanted to get a piece of the March Madness pie, and had to settle for the version where a back screen is a foreign concept and nobody has to jump to get a rebound. But I don’t need to hear Liz Phair sing about it during every commercial break on ESPN for three straight months. What’s wrong with just letting the game sell itself instead of loudly telling everyone how they need to watch this sport, and then yelling even louder when they say they don’t like it?

Nobody is trying to deny women the right to compete in sports. They have every right to have the same opportunities as men do. But the idea that every person needs to watch and appreciate their sport is ridiculous.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

There's been a lot of excitement in Minnesota over the past couple days ever since the State Legislature took the first steps towards getting the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers their own on-campus outdoor football stadium. Take a mental note of all the excitement and happiness that university reps and fans are showing about their new stadium. Ten years from now, it will be a great answer to the rhetorical exasperation "What on Earth were they thinking when they built this thing?"

Make no mistake, I've long said that the Gophers desperately needed to move out of the Metrodome and build their own football stadium. College football shouldn't be played inside a dome, and no college football game should be moved to Friday night because a baseball game has first priority. The stadium proposal is certainly better than continuing to play at the Metrodome, but then again, scheduling games in a corn field in Darwin, Minnesota, right next to the world's largest ball of twine would have been a step up from the Metrodome. But the new stadium proposal is still tremendously disappointing for the future of Gopher football.

You really can’t blame Gopher fans for being optimistic. If you feed a starving man gristle, it’s still going to taste to filet mignon to him. For years they’ve heard people say that all they really needed was a new stadium to draw in recruits and turn things around for their program. But the proposed stadium plan won’t be what they need, and a few years from now, Gopher fans will be begging for another meal.

The biggest problem with the new stadium is that it looks beautiful in the preliminary drawings, but is pitifully lacking in size. The proposed design has only 50,000 seats. That’s shamefully low for a Big Ten football program. A stadium of that size would the second smallest in the Big Ten, and only about 750 seats bigger than Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Field. While that may not seem like a big deal, the size of the stadium will keep Minnesota from achieving the goals they hoped to gain by building a new stadium.

The biggest reason that fans wanted a new stadium for the Gophers was that they felt the horrible conditions at the Metrodome were keeping Minnesota from landing top recruits, especially within their home state. But if players were choosing against going to Minnesota before because of their stadium, there’s that will keep them from leaving in the future. Yes, the new stadium will be better than the Metrodome, but it won’t be better than the other stadiums of top programs around the country. Minnesota may be closing the gap between themselves and college football’s elite, but they certainly won’t be surpassing them.

If anything, the new stadium could be used as a recruiting tool against Minnesota. It’s no stretch to imagine Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis telling a player “Why would you want to go to a school that has so little confidence in their program that they’re building themselves a smaller stadium?” or Penn State’s Joe Paterno asking a player “Why go to Minnesota when you can play in front of twice as many people every home game?”

The second goal Minnesota fans had was to grow their program with the new stadium. But with a 50,000 seat stadium, there’s no room for the program to grow. Perhaps the small stadium will save them some embarrassment when the team struggles through miserable seasons and nobody wants to show up, but if the program becomes successful like people want, they won’t be able to put nearly as many fans into the seats as they potentially could. It will be incredibly difficult for Minnesota to make the jump to being an elite program when they can only generate about half of the ticket revenue that other elite programs can generate with their monstrous stadiums.

The proposed new stadium for the Gophers may seem like a great idea now, but unless someone steps in and finds a way to get them to build a bigger stadium, it’s going to leave people wondering what the University of Minnesota was thinking when they decided to build it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The poor guys just can’t win.

Last summer, the NBA’s dresstapo came down with a ruling saying that all players would be required to wear suits to the arena on gameday. It seems commissioner David Stern got tired of watching ESPN and TNT’s favorite 5 second five pre-game clip of the team’s star player walking through the tunnels of the arena to the lockerroom, and seeing those players dressed in less than business casual attire. There were players in t-shirts and jeans, players wearing throwback jerseys of basketball legends, and in hilarious instance that will now have to only live on in legend, Rasheed Wallace wearing his own jersey to the game. It was all just a little too thuggish for Stern’s liking, so he made the rule.

It wasn’t a popular decision. There was a lot of grumbling from the players, and a lot of disappointment for the makers of Sean John clothing. The league decided to appeal to the players’ competitiveness by deciding to out a “Best Dressed” award on their website every week this season. In the end, the players gave in and the suits are here to stay.

They even decided to one-up the commish. Not only did they stop wearing their gangsta-wear to the arena, they took things an extra step further by wearing the absolutely least gangsta thing you could possibly wear: tights.

If you’ve happened to watch an NBA game this year, you may have noticed star players like Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson all enjoying the comfort and breathability of spandex.

The players say the tights provide support and compression which helps their muscles work more efficiently, especially when they are injured, and it helps keep their muscles loose and warm during the game. There’s also the Robert Traylor-model, featuring a tummy-tucking control top.

Sure the players may have looked like they were a pair of white ice skates away from being figure skaters, but when you’re Dwyane Wade and you have a posse of 20 people waiting for the opportunity to earn their pay by beating down anyone who tries to point that out, you don’t really care.

But apparently that wasn’t the look that David Stern was going for either. The NBA reportedly wanted to ban the tights after the All-Star break, but decided to wait until the end of the season to avoid another controversy like the pre-game suit scandal.

So enjoy seeing your favorite NBA star in spandex while you can, since it looks like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have a hard time imagining Allen Iverson starting a “Fight for Right to Wear Tights” campaign, though a catchy rhyme like that would be perfect for his next rap album.

The bigger question is where do the NBA players go from here? They tried going gangsta and that didn’t work. They tried going girlie and that didn’t work. I can’t imagine what we’ll be seeing our favorite NBAers wearing next season, but I can guarantee it will be weird, and I can guarantee that David Stern won’t like it.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Have you ever been dragged into the middle of a fight you didn’t really want to be a part of? Well, as a sports writer, I feel like I’m dragged into the middle of this whole Barry Bonds steroid issue. I tried to avoid it, I really did. But if you pay attention to any of the mainstream media, it’s almost impossible not to get involved.

Personally, I just want to see an end to all the lies and deception. And I’m not even talking about Barry Bonds. The talk in recent weeks about investigating Barry Bonds has as much to do with Major League Baseball and baseball’s sports writers not wanting to see Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s home run record as it does with any of the other reasons given like the “integrity of the game.”

By now I’m sure that most of us have seen all the famous picture of a young, skinny Barry Bonds from the early 90’s next to a picture of the swollen homerun hitting machine that he currently is. But has anyone seen a picture of Barry Bonds from five years ago next to a picture of Barry Bonds right now? I have. They’re pretty much the same.

The point is that Barry Bonds’ body didn’t make this transformation overnight. He’s looked the way he does for some time now. But Major League Baseball and the media never really had a problem with it, until now that he’s coming close to one of baseball’s most impressive records.

Bud Selig and Major League Baseball could have stopped all of this from happening. There have been complaints about steroids in the game of baseball for over a decade now, but Selig never took the initiative to stop it. They made a few half-hearted attempts at getting a drug-testing policy, but backed down at the first sign of resistance from the players. You’d think they would have fought harder for something so vital to the purity and integrity of the game, but they mainly used it as a concession to the players to give them leverage for their other priorities.

And then there are the baseball writers. Baseball’s media is as close to a modern-day version of the mafia that you’re going to get. If you help them out, give them good quotes, tell them funny stories, they will give you their protection. If you don’t help them out, you’ll have to endure their wrath. You can’t blame them for it. Trying to make the same story interesting 162 different times over the course of a season can be extremely difficult. But that’s why I view things like the Hall of Fame voting, which is voted on by baseball writers, to be about as legitimate as a South American election.

Bonds has always been surly and standoffish with the media. He doesn’t give smiling interviews in front of the camera the way Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did, and he has always been punished by the media for it. Can you imagine the reaction if Bonds bat split open in tomorrow’s game and cork came flying out the way it did with Sammy Sosa’s bat a few years ago? I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t accept the “I accidentally grabbed the wrong bat” accuse like they did for Smilin’ Sammy. It’s also why we get the annual story about why Barry Bonds is such a bad teammate, despite the fact Bonds performs better than any baseball player in history. I don’t know how you could be a better teammate than by going out and doing your job well every single day, but like I said, what happens in the clubhouse is more important to baseball writers than what happens on the field.

The steroid hysteria around Bonds is no different. There’s a bunch of writers who would love nothing more than to put an asterisk next to all of Bonds achievements just because they think he’s a bad guy. The potential steroid use is just a convenient means to go after him.

So while everyone is making a big deal out of this now, it’s no different than how gay marriage becomes a hot button issue near every election. If Major League Baseball and the baseball writers really cared as much about this issue as they say they do, it would have been corrected long ago. If they want to stop steroid use in the future, they should make a rule to start testing players. But don’t single out and attack Barry just because you don’t like him. And try to leave me out of it.