Thursday, March 27, 2008

Musings on NFL Rules

Starting Monday, NFL owners are meeting to discuss possible rule changes for the coming year. Here is what I think of some of the proposed rules.

The college option on the coin toss, allowing teams to defer taking the ball until the second half.

Sure, why not? The more options available the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Eliminating the five-yard "incidental facemask" penalty. Grabbing the facemask and turning it would lead to an automatic 15-yard penalty.

Really? So much for protecting the players. This is an important rule. It does not need to be eliminated. Refs need to better ENFORCE this rule, and perhaps there needs to be a clarification in what constitutes a 5-yard "incidental" versus a 15-yard personal foul, but the incidental should remain in place.

Banning players from having hair below the name tag on their backs.

Hello to the "No Fun League." The NFL has characters, and some of them are famous for their childish behavior (hello, T.O.), some for their just-plain-good-time antics (hello, Ocho Cinco), and some are just because of their presence (hello, Polamalu). Troy Polamalu is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, and has long hair that extends far below is helmet. He has been tackled by his hair on occasion, and there is a penalty already in place to protect players from pulling excessively on their hair, similar to their jersey. To institute this rule, however, is a ton of prevention for an ounce of cure. The NFL is not suffering from an image problem, and the players should be allowed to be themselves, and to let their personality shine through. Let this one go, Roger.

Instant replay on field-goal attempts.

No brainer. Do it. Instant replay is about getting the calls right. While they are at it, the challenge system should be changed. Instead of only X number of challenges per half or per game, coaches should be allowed X number of WRONG challenges. As long as the officials got it wrong, the coach should be allowed to challenge an unlimited number of times. Get the calls on the field right so the NFL doesn't have to say "whoops" come Monday.

Ending the forceout rule on receptions and interceptions.

Again, do it. If you cannot get your feet down in bounds, the pass is incomplete. That is the point of defense. With such strict rules in place about pass interference, it is getting close to impossible to actually defend against the pass. Should make the call easier, too. No more "woulda coulda shoulda." Get your feet down or you are out.

Changing the rule on seeding in the playoffs.

This would mean that there is the potential for wild card teams with a better record than other division winners would host the wild card game. I'm sorry, I understand the unfairness of having to travel to a team with a worse record, and the divisions may not be stacked evenly in any given year, but this is the reality of sports. And sports are cyclical. There was a long time when the NFC dominated the Super Bowl. Today the AFC has been dominant (the Giants are only the 3rd NFC winner in the last 10 years). If you cannot win your division, you should not host a wild card game. Better luck next year.

Hopefully the owners get it right this time around. They also have a potential labor dispute with the players union to diffuse, and the regular business of the league to transact. Going to be a busy time in Palm Beach. Hopefully a productive one, too.

160 days until kickoff. Can't wait.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Citius, Altius, Fortius, and God Save the Queen

At least one country is taking a dramatic step to ensure that every one of their athletes competing in Beijing this summer is clean. Britain has announced that since January 1, and going until the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) takes over supervision with the opening of the Olympic Village on July 27, every single British athlete competing in the games will be tested for doping violations, many more than once. The British have acknowledged that sports are a public trust, and are making sure that their athletes are worthy of that trust.

Well it is about time. As Jose Canseco comes out with a new book painting (true or not) more baseball stars as cheaters, and the Tour de France confirms once and for all that Alberto Contador will not be racing this year, at least someone is doing something about the pandemic of cheating that has gripped the sports world for longer than any of us would like to admit. Yes, there may be privacy issues at stake, but sports are a public trust. There will be plenty to worry about this summer at the Olympics, from China's human rights abuses to which country will win the most medals to the air quality in Beijing. At least we do not have to worry about one country's athletes doping before the games.

I hope every athlete at the U.S. Olympic trials are tested as well. I do not care if there is no evidence that they have or may have cheated in the past. You want to try out for the Olympics? Here's a needle and here's a cup. You qualify for the Olympics? Let's do it again. The UCI is in the process of implementing a biological passport for all riders this year. Why not have the same thing for every professional or Olympic athlete? Yes, it may be expensive, but sports are a public trust. Let's get it done and clean it up. Archers, windsurfers, soccer players, sprinters, swimmers, divers, and cyclists. I do not care which sport you play. I say test them all.

Citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger. Go for the gold, and let us cheer with a clear conscience.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Busting Bracketology

Today is the first day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Today and tomorrow, 64 teams will play and be cut down to 32. Across the country, billions of dollars are changing hands as people enter pools, attempting to predict the outcome. On ESPN, Mike and Mike have their annual bracket wager under way. This year, if one loses, he will have to dye his hair a different color every day for a week. If the other loses, he will have to enter a competitive eating contest. It is all in fun and games. For pride, for a little bit of money, and for the spirit of competition (and a distraction from work).

But in a many states, bracket pools constitute illegal gambling. Depending on the amount of money changing hands, and the way a pool is run, people could even be facing jail time. Not that any of these rules are ever enforced. And I would bet dollars to donuts that the people charged with enforcing these laws are actually breaking them by participating in pools themselves. Former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel was fired from that position for entering a bracket pool. Let me repeat that: the football coach was fired for betting on a totally different sport. Neuheisel was later awarded millions of dollars in damages against the University of Washington and the NCAA.

This is not a joke, folks. This is serious business. And like many of our drug laws, it is utterly ridiculous. Any law that makes criminals out of this many Americans is probably not a good law. And enforced or not, these laws are on the books, available for use by law enforcement agencies. Have a problem with your neighbor? Odds are you could turn him in for betting on Kansas to beat Duke in the championship game. Or for that other favorite betting time of year, the Super Bowl.

Sports and gambling go hand in hand. They cannot be separated easily. And why should they? For the most part, it is all in fun. Let those of us who were never tall enough or good enough to ever play major college basketball have some fun riding not just our favorite teams but our analysis of their matchups (or jersey colors or mascots in some cases) to victory.

As for my bracket this year? North Carolina beats Texas in the championship, with UCLA and Wisconsin joining them in the Final 4. Go Tar Heels!

Monday, March 17, 2008

From the Pulpit to the Prison Cell

A Roman Catholic priest has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The priest was convicted for leading a militia to kill 1500 Tutsi refugees in a church. After failing to kill many of them by having fuel poured through the roof while grenades were thrown inside, the priest ordered the church demolished, killing the remaining refugees.

Peace, love, understanding, sanctity of human life. Obviously, this priest does not represent the views of the Catholic Church, and I am in no way suggesting that he does or ever did. It does bring to mind the Church's silence during the Holocaust, however, and the millennia-long internal contradiction between the Church's stated position and its orders and actions that include holy wars (like the crusades) and persecutions against pagans, Jews, and other Christian groups.

In the words of George Carlin, "Sanctity of life. You believe in it? Personally, I think it's a bunch of shit. Well, I mean, life is sacred? Who said so? God? Hey, if you read history, you realize that god is one of the leading causes of death." Hard to argue with the man.

Now I do not believe that being in a church should exempt a criminal from being apprehended by law enforcement authorities, but I do believe that, whenever possible, places of worship should be exempted from the horrors of war, even when soldiers stay there. If a church becomes a base of operations, or a firing station, it should be attacked. But if a soldier lays down his weapons and hides out in a church, I could see him being protected there. A civilian seeking refuge in a church, however, should never have to justify the sanctuary of a church. And for a priest to destroy a church in order to kill the civilians seeking refuge there? It ranks with some of the worst actions in all of human history.

Let the priest rot away in prison. There is no punishment too severe for this prime example of the scum of the Earth.

Friday, March 14, 2008

(Not so) Damn Yankees

Billy Crystal was cut today by the New York Yankees. The team signed him to a contract and cut him after one at bat, in which he struck out after fouling off a pitch.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a chance to ridicule the Yankees, but not this time. Billy Crystal is not some minor league player who blew his shot at the big leagues in spring training. Billy Crystal is a lifelong Yankee fan and a famous comedian, who was given the opportunity to live out a lifelong dream.

Many people are howling about this, saying that he should not be given this opportunity, that he is only taking advantage of his celebrity. Are these critics out of their mind? Even if they are right, so what? Yes you have to take these games seriously, even the spring training ones, but not so much that you cannot do things like this. Garth Brooks took nearly 50 at bats over three spring trainings. Michael Jordan played for a White Sox minor league team and even hit a home run. Of course, Crystal is 60 years old and not an active athlete, but again, so what? Crystal had one at bat in the DH position. And in the wake of the Mitchell Report, these people want to scream and yell about the purity of the game? This is exactly the kind of thing that baseball needs. Someone playing purely for love of the game. I only wish he had gotten a hit.

The circumstances are few and far between where you will hear me say this next sentence. Kudos to the Steinbrenners and the Yankees.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sex and Silence

Doctor-patient confidentiality.

Think about that phrase for a minute. Think about what it means. Think about everything that it implies. You can say anything to your doctor, and they cannot reveal it to anyone. There is a similar protection for clergy members and attorneys. These are professions that require candor to effectively do their job, and society has recognized this and provided protections for the individuals who serve in these capacities.

Today, this principle seems to conflict more and more with the idea of parental control over their minor children. Today, confidentiality does not apply to teenagers, and issues over parental notification laws for abortions have gone all the way to the Supreme Court. This presents doctors with a huge problem, however. A new study has been released saying that 1 in 4 teenage girls in the United States have a sexually transmitted disease. To put that in raw numbers, more than 3 million girls between 14 and 19 have an STD. Dr. Margaret Blythe of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on adolescence says that there are many doctors who do not want to discuss these issues with their teenage patients, or tell them to get tested, as the results of these tests would have to be released to their parents.

This should present on obvious solution to the problem at hand, or at least to this particular piece of the puzzle. I agree 100% wholeheartedly with the American Academy of Pediatrics on their recommendation that teenagers be allowed confidential screenings. Many teens do not want their parents to know that they are having sex, but they still need medical advice. And teens in this situation should not be forced to go into a new situation, with strangers they have never met, in order to get advice and treatment. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinics serve an important purpose, and should be imitated throughout the country/world (I know, I'm a dreamer). But teens should not have to go to the clinics to get advice. Instead, they have to be able to go to a doctor they know and trust, secure in the knowledge that they can get the treatment and advice they need, without being subject to the wrath of their parents.

Whether we like what teens are doing or not, the fact is that they are going to do these things. Sex and drugs and other things are facts of life. The best way to help is not to cover our eyes and ears and scream "HELL BOUND" like the Christian Right, but instead to deal with reality as it presents itself to us. It is time to be realistic, and we need doctors to be able to give advice to teens. We would not stand for a doctor giving our information to someone else, why would we stand for them being able to give someone else's information to us?

And yes, I do understand the counterargument. Parents are responsible for their children, we would never let a doctor perform an operation without consulting a parent, yada yada yada. And part of a doctor's advice should be to encourage a sexually active teen to talk to his or her parents. As far as I am concerned, however, if I had a teenager, it would be more important to me for my teen to be healthy and safe, and cared for by a doctor I know and trust, even if that doctor would not tell me things I think I need to know.

This report by the CDC shows that it is long past time for confidential testing for teens. Hopefully this becomes reality, and we can see these numbers drop in years to come.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Doing Right in Light of Loss

I do not usually comment (or care) about dead actors and celebrities, but I figured it might not be a bad idea to praise people when they do the right thing. Heath Ledger died without having updated his will to include his ex or to his two year old daughter. Court papers do not say what his estate is valued at, but his New York City belongings alone are worth $145,000. All of his property was to be given to his parents and sisters.

Here is the happy ending to this particular chapter of the story (since the story itself can't really have one): Kim Ledger, Heath's father, has said that the family will make sure to provide for Ledger's ex and their daughter. It is nice to see Mr. Ledger not just say that he will use his son's money to not only take care of his grandchild, but of her mother as well. It is the right and decent thing to do.

I hope (and would very much like to believe) that Mr. Ledger will stick to his pledge. Hopefully this will remind everyone to update their wills whenever something changes in their life. Not everyone in the world is as reasonable as Mr. Ledger appears to be.

Friday, March 7, 2008

For the Honor of Racing on the Cobblestones

I may have been wrong about the "fast and quiet" death of cycling that I predicted. The UCI has seen to that as they have opened a disciplinary case against the French Cycling Federation (FFC) for supporting the owners of the Paris-Nice race in running the race, making it very public indeed. The owners, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) own the Tour de France, cycling's marquee event.

This does not bode well for cycling's future. There are riders who have already declined to participate in the Paris-Nice race because they are worried about their Olympic eligibility, which is governed by the UCI. Cycling needs the Tour, and the Tour needs effective, open, and honest doping controls. And these controls need to be run consistently across international boundaries, and this is something that only the UCI can effectively accomplish.

There last time there was not a Tour de France was in 1946, and since 1903 only the two World Wars have prevented the contest from going forward. No one is suggesting the the race will not go forward. UCI is saying that without their support, it should not take place, but the ASO has said all along they will go forward under French authority, even without UCI support and controls.

Already the Tour is going to go forward without marquee names like Levi Leipheimer and defending champion Alberto Contador. There are many other names that cycling needs to have racing, however, if it is going to survive as a major event and not become a sideshow. The UCI wants control, the ASO wants independence, and caught in the middle are the men who just want to ride and compete for the greatest prize in their sport, and one of the greatest athletic accomplishments in the world.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has offered to mediate the dispute, but both the UCI and ASO have rejected their offer. What they have ignored is the fact that not having the Tour de France is like open wheel racing not running the Indianapolis 500 because Tony George wants exclusive control over the rules of the race, wants them drastically different from the rest of the season, and if the sanctioning body does not agree to it, he will run the race without Penske, or Ganassi, or any other major team.

The UCI and ASO need each other. Cycling needs a marquee event, and you cannot just go out and create history, especially not the kind that comes with over a century of racing across the French countryside. The ASO needs the Tour to be consistent with cycling events the world over, at least in terms of the rules, regulations, and controls. And the sports world needs for the cloud of suspicion and embarrassment that has hovered over the Tour de France for over a decade to lift so that we can trust that our champions truly are figures that we can recognize with a clear conscience.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Slipping Further Away

As rockets continue to fall on Israel, and the Israeli military steps up operations in Gaza, gunmen shot up a school in Jerusalem.

There is no peace in the Middle East, and the ramping up of the attacks as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with Olmert and Abbas show just how hollow President Bush's call for peace in the region by the end of his term really is. A timetable cannot be put on a conflict of this magnitude, and Israel cannot be realistically asked to negotiate with a gun to its head.

I was reading a TIME article about the possibility of Israel conducting a full assault on Gaza, getting itself into an Iraq-type quagmire, when an email popped up. A friend of mine who I am not in regular touch with is not only in Israel right now, not only in Jerusalem, but studying at a seminary there. He did not mention the attacks directly, but only said not to worry, that he is OK, and goes to a different school, a neighboring school from the one attacked.

And once again, events so far away hit so close to home for me.

Israel cannot negotiate as rockets keep falling on Sderot and Ashkelon. Abbas has to clean his own house before he can negotiate in good faith. Otherwise, we will merely return to (or continue) the hollow promises of the Arafat decades, where he would say in English what the west wanted to hear, and then turn around in Arabic and say "go get 'em."

I do not know what the answers are. All I know is that, unlike the optimism expressed in the Lincoln quote that peace is not so distant as it has been, I feel like hope and peace are slipping further and further away.

Seatbelts and Sake

Yet another minor child has been found drunk at school. I feel like every day there is a report of a kid in single digit years (in this case 4) drunk. I am of the opinion that the legal drinking age is too high. But I'm talking about lowering it to 18 (you can die for your country but you are not allowed to order a beer?). Or maybe even down to 16 if you are with your parents. But 4? Give me a break. Anyone who gives alcohol to a child should be thrown in prison. And no, I am not talking about the occasional sip during a religious observation or to see what it tastes like at a family dinner at home. But no child should be given their own drink. And no one should have to be told that.

I saw this particular case reported in a video on CNN. I also saw something really good in the video, though. The reporter was interviewing a parent who was sitting in his car while picking up his child from the school. While he was talking, you can see over his shoulder the car door open, the kid get in, reach up and put his seatbelt on. Maybe there is hope for us yet. The drunk 4 year old is the exception. I would like to (and in fact do) think that the kid putting on his seatbelt unprompted is the rule.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

1 Down, 1 to Go

"So Clinton lives to run for another seven weeks. But if you believe in the power of numbers, the candidate of inevitability is Barack Obama." - Mark Halperin, "Clinton Wins Big, But Math is Troubling," TIME, March 5, 2008.

The media has gotten everything wrong in this campaign. McCain went from the leader to dead to the leader to faltering to the nominee. Rudy went from the presumptive to the throwaway. Thompson went from the savior to....well he never really became anything. Hillary was the presumptive to the finished to the comeback kid to....the inevitable loser, apparently. Obama was the dark horse to the presumptive to the front runner to....the inevitable winner who just can't quite close the deal.

They have gotten everything wrong, so why should we listen to them now? Welcome to campaign '08. The Daily Show calls it "Indecision '08," and it really is. We were supposed to have this thing wrapped up by Super (Duper) Tuesday. Now we have another SEVEN WEEKS of campaigns and mudslinging for the Democrats, while the Republicans unite around their maverick that they are just not quite ready to trust.

This process is insane. It is too long, too drawn out. In a week, we will count off the 40th anniversary of the 1968 New Hampshire primary, where a sitting President was almost unseated by a candidate within his own party. This year, New Hampshire is two months behind us, and this campaign is 2+ years old. If you want to be President, you are never not running.

Uniters, dividers, Republicans, Democrats, independents. We just cannot make up our minds as to what we want. I have been wondering lately, what could possibly make someone think that they are the right person to lead the nation? What could make a person think that they should be President? What could possibly make someone think that they are qualified?

I'm reminded of one of my law professor's comments about New Yorkers: "I love New Yorkers because they don’t really care who wins. They just want everyone to shut up."

But looking back to that quote that I used to open this post, Maybe we have made a decision as a country, or at least the Democrats have as a party. Or, and I think this is much more likely, everyone has their head in the sand and it is stupid to predict anything until November 5, and by then, we will know who is running for President in 2012, and we get to start the process all over again.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Old Soldier Fades Away

Brett Favre is retiring.

How much would I have killed to hear those words 10 years ago, when his Packers kept bouncing my Niners from the playoffs? Today, I'm not quite as thrilled to hear it as I would have been in the past. Then, Brett represented the evil successor to the Cowboys of the mid-1990s. Today, he represents everything that is good about football specifically, and sports in general. Playing the game the same way he has his entire life, Favre is a great example for young aspiring football players to look up to.

It was such a great thing to see him doing well and being successful again. Now he can ride off into the sunset. I hope he gives Green Bay a chance to thank him for what he has done. He and they have been waiting a long time for this kind of celebration at Lambeau. And the one that's coming in Canton, five years down the line.

Aaron Rodgers has some ridiculously big shoes to fill. I wish him luck, since he needs all the help he can get.

Enjoy retirement, Brett. You've earned it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Running Clean (?)

And now, for some thoughts on sports.

I'm torn over the what to think about the Tour de France banning the Astana team from this year's event. On the one hand, this is a totally different team, that just happens to have the same name, as the team that embarrassed the Tour last year. To lump Bruyneel and Leipheimer and Contador in with the likes of Vinokourov is fundamentally unfair to the new edition of the Astana team. It is like the Cleveland Browns today. They are not the Browns of 30 years ago. Those Browns are now the Baltimore Ravens. The new Cleveland Browns are an expansion franchise. Similarly this is an entirely new Astana team.

On the other hand, as a fan, I can see the Tour's perspective with crystal clarity. I was heartbroken when Vino was caught cheating, and the entire team was expelled from the Tour after having embarrassed cycling's biggest event for the second straight year. Bruyneel, Leipheimer, and Contador knew that they were joining a team with such a horrible name recognition when they signed with Astana. It is hard to have sympathy for them when they knew what they were getting into.

Beyond the fate of the Astana team and Contador's inability to defend his Tour title, there is the ongoing conflict between the group that runs the Tour and cycling's governing body. The two-wheeled racers should learn something from their four-wheeled brethren in the United States. The recently ended 10 year war between Champ Car/CART and the IRL seriously hurt open wheel racing and opened the door for NASCAR to jump to the top of American motorsports. An ongoing conflict between cycling's governing body and its marquee event will make the sport die fast and quiet.

If they want to survive, they need to come together. They need to make sure that no team, the "new" Astana or any other, do what the "old" Astana did. Cycling knows it needs to clean up, but it needs to do so fairly. Otherwise, you end up with enduring (and unfair) questions about Lance Armstrong's 7 straight wins, and the horribly embarrassing situation of Floyd Landis, the shamed and disqualified 2006 "winner" who continues to pursue his case before the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

2 wheels, 4 wheels, on foot, on ice, I just like racing. And cheating in one of the greatest prizes in sports makes me heartsick more than the (fine, for now I'll still call it "alleged") cheating of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. I hope the Tour goes off without a hitch this year. Cycling, sports in general, and the world at large could use it. And so could I.