I'm increasingly ambivalent about football (see here, here, here), but HBO's Hard Knocks, the recurring documentary miniseries inside an NFL training camp, is still the best TV show I've seen all year.
The show's stars included coaches, families, undrafted rookies and journeyman free agents, all in orbit around the Houston Texans. A huge part of the draw, though, is all-pro defensive lineman JJ Watt, maybe the NFL's best player at any position. Watt does freakish things, like flipping half-ton tires end over end, or box-jumping sixty-one inches (kind of like jumping onto the roof of a car from a standstill).
Watt is the best defensive football player on the planet -- probably the best football player full stop. His body looks like what Superman would draw if someone asked him to draw what he wanted to look like. My body looks like if someone asked Superman to draw a pile of mashed potatoes wearing shorts.
Sports business may be evil, its fundamental practices barbaric, its media representations distorted and misleading, and its role in American life exaggerated beyond all reason. But god, it's compelling to watch human beings who are better at what they do than anyone else on the planet, who do things that don't completely seem possible.
When and if [student-athletes] do receive their degree, it might mean even less in terms of real future dollars than those received by their peers. The networking they might have done with others on campus is restricted by their class schedules and practice; the networking with wealthy alumni that might benefit them in business is explicitly forbidden in many instances, something Princeton's own Michael Lewis points out in The Blind Side. The athlete receives no dividend or funds kept in trust for their well-above-average financial contributions to the university on graduation.
By rule they are separated from the income they make, and by system they are separated from the university education they were promised. They are neither amateurs nor professionals, and effectively moved as undeclared contraband through the United States tax system.
Hall's argument is intercut with a personal essay about growing up with his own family precariously in and out of poverty. The two halves don't quite join up, but it helps break some of the abstractions around the amateur ideal and gives the whole thing an added urgency.
Concussion, starring Will Smith, is about Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the link between football and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and will be out in December.
The movie is based on the 2009 GQ article, Game Brain.
Let's say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let's say the scientific community -- starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country -- comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Saw someone on Twitter saying that maybe this will be football's The Insider. Let's hope it moves the needle.
In dozens of studio emails unearthed by hackers, Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.
"Will is not anti football (nor is the movie) and isn't planning to be a spokesman for what football should be or shouldn't be but rather is an actor taking on an exciting challenge," Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, wrote in an email on Aug. 6, 2014, to three top studio executives about how to position the movie. "We'll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet's nest."
Ok, this is one of the strangest photos I've ever seen. In the background, there's a building on fire and in the foreground, there's a football game going on like there's not a building on fire right there. From their photographic recap of 1965, In Focus has the story:
Spectators divide their attention as the Mount Hermon High School football team in Massachusetts hosts Deerfield Academy during a structure fire in the Mount Hermon science building on November 24, 1965. The science building was destroyed, and Mount Hermon lost the football game, ending a two-year-long winning streak.
Update: The photo above reminded some readers of this photo, taken by Joel Sternfeld in 1978.
Even at the time, when the photograph was reprinted around the world, people thought it was too weird to be real. "My colleagues maintain it is a real picture, but I believe it is of the April fool type," wrote Phil F. Brogan, an editor at The Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Ore. ("I can assure you that the picture was not faked," replied Arthur H. Kiendl Jr., the headmaster of Mount Hermon, the Massachusetts prep school where the game took place.)
In fact, the photograph, of Mount Hermon's game against Deerfield Academy on Nov. 20, 1965, was an instant classic. Though the photographer, Robert Van Fleet, never received much in the way of money for it, it was named the Associated Press sports photograph of the year. It was featured on the back page of Life magazine. It was reproduced in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the United States, including The New York Times, often accompanied by supposedly amusing captions about Rome burning, the teams' "red-hot rivalry" and the like.
I've been a steadfast fan of NFL football for the past 15 years. Most weekends I'd catch at least two or three games on TV. Professional football lays bare all of the human achievement + battle with self + physical intelligence + teamwork stuff I love thinking about in a particularly compelling way. But for a few years now, the cons have been piling up in my conscience: the response to head injuries, the league's nonprofit status, the homophobia, and turning a blind eye to the reliance on drugs (PEDs and otherwise). And the final straw: the awful terrible inhuman way the league treats violence against women.
It's overwhelming. Enough is enough. I dropped my cable subscription a few months ago and was considering getting it again to watch the NFL, but I won't be doing that. Pro football, I love you, but we can't see each other anymore. And it's definitely you, not me. Call me when you grow up.
So how did I do? I ended up watching four games this season: a random Sunday night game in week 15 or 16, the Pats/Ravens playoff, the Pats/Colts playoff, and the Super Bowl. I've been watching and rooting for the Patriots for the past, what, 14 or 15 years now. And more to the point, I've been following the Brady/Belichick storyline for almost that long and once it became clear the Pats had a great shot at winning it all, not watching the final acts was just not going to happen, NFL bullshit or not. It would be like putting down one of the best 1200-page books you've ever read with two chapters to go and just saying, yeah, I'm not going to read the end of that. And that game last night...I felt *incredible* when Butler intercepted that pass. Life is full of many greater, more fulfilling, and more genuine moments, but there's no feeling quite like the one when you realize your team has won, especially when that victory has been snatched, semi-literally, from the jaws of near-certain defeat.
But that's ultimately weak sauce. I don't feel justified about watching just because I really enjoyed it. I made a commitment to myself and didn't honor it. I believe the NFL is still a terrible organization and isn't worth supporting with my attention. For whatever it's worth, I'm going back to not watching next year, and I hope I fare better.
Update: Bill Simmons, in an epic recap of the final 12 minutes of the Super Bowl, echoes what I was getting at above.
When you've been rooting for the same people for 15 years, at some point the stakes become greater. You want that last exclamation-point title. (Just ask Spurs fans.) You want to feel like you rooted for a dynasty, or something close to it, instead of just "a team that won a couple of times." You want to say that you rooted for the best coach ever and the best quarterback ever, and you want to be constantly amazed that they showed up to save your sad-sack franchise at the exact same time.
I know, I know, no football.1 But I could not help seeing this catch last night by NY Giants receiver Odell Beckham. Many are calling it the best catch anyone has ever made in the history of the NFL.
As a player, how do you prepare yourself for making the greatest catch in history? It would be easy to dismiss this catch as a lucky fluke...one-handed, fighting off a defender, just gets it by his fingertips. But here's the thing: Beckham practices exactly this catch:
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Preparation, kids. Preparation.
Aside from the occasional highlight, I still have not watched a single minute of NFL football this year. It's not been easy, particularly on Sunday nights, where all I want to do most of the time is flip on the game and veg out with a Collinsworth/Michaels soundtrack. ↩
I lay awake at night wondering how many lives were irreparably damaged by my most handy ball boy tool: smelling salts. On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he'd scream "Eric!" and I'd dash over and say, "It's O.K., I'm right here, got just what you need."
Memory loss is just one of the problems that plague Gerald Willhite, 55. Frustration, depression, headaches, body pain, swollen joints, and a disassociative identity disorder are other reminders of his seven-season (1982-88) career with the Denver Broncos, during which he said he sustained at least eight concussions.
"I think we were misled," Willhite said from Sacramento. "We knew what we signed up for, but we didn't know the magnitude of what was waiting for us later."
When Willhite read about the symptoms of some former players who were taking legal action against the NFL, he thought "Crap, I got the same issues." He decided to join the lawsuit that claimed the league had withheld information about brain injuries and concussions. He feels that the $765 million settlement, announced last summer and earmarked for the more than 4,000 players in the lawsuit, is like a "Band-Aid put on a gash."
Any other year, Steve Almond would have seen the play. But, after forty years of fandom, he's quit the N.F.L. In his new book, "Against Football," Almond is plain about what he considers the various moral hazards of the game: "I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia."
This part resonated most with me:
Even a casual N.F.L. fan can recognize that this is a particularly opportune time for a Raiders fan to stop watching football. The team is terrible. I asked Almond about that. "If the Raiders were really good, I might not have written the book," he said. "How fucked up is that? It's true, I love them. I see those colors, and it's me." For Almond, his struggle to confront his own hypocrisy is exactly the point: proof of football's insidiousness, of its ominous power.
"Football somehow hits that Doritos bliss point," he told me. "It's got the intellectual allure of all these contingencies and all this strategy, but at the same time it is so powerfully connecting us to the intuitive joys of childhood, that elemental stuff: Can you make a miracle? Can you see the stuff that nobody else sees? And most of us can't, but we love to see it. And I don't blame people for wanting to see it. I love it, and I'm going to miss it."
It's overwhelming. Enough is enough. I dropped my cable subscription a few months ago and was considering getting it again to watch the NFL, but I won't be doing that. Pro football, I love you, but we can't see each other anymore. And it's definitely you, not me. Call me when you grow up.
My (admittedly unoriginal) suspicion is that the reason we keep having this discussion over the ethics of football is almost entirely a product of the sport's sheer popularity. The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing -- where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible -- still exists. But people care less about boxing, so they worry less about the ethics of boxing. Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here's what it means: We love something that's dangerous. And I can live with that.
I'm not here to dictate other people's morality. I'm certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own. Surely it is a man's right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration.
Same here. I don't feel any sense of judgment or righteousness about this. Just the personal loss of a hobby I *really* enjoyed. (via @campbellmiller & @Godzilla07)
Yesterday, I was looking for a GIF of two people missing a high-five (as one does) and the top hits I got back were all of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
I thought, "the three-time Super Bowl winner and one of his wide receivers trying to high-five and missing each other's hands? That's pretty funny!" Oh no. What is funnier still is Brady trying to high-five one or more of his teammates and the other players totally ignoring him. What's even funnier than that? This has happened over and over again.
Against the Ravens:
Against the Saints:
And against the Steelers. (These are all just from last season, and all Patriots wins, by the way):
Richard Sherman is a football player for the Seatt...hey, HEY!, you nerds that were about to wander off because I'm talking about sportsball, come on back here. Like I was saying, Sherman plays cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, who won the Super Bowl last year. The thing is, whatever it is you do, Richard Sherman is way better at his job than you are at yours. And he's able to explain how he does what he does, which, if you've ever been to a technology conference or read more than a thing or two linked from Hacker News, you know is even more rare.
Sherman is, by his own admission, not particularly athletically gifted in comparison to some others in the NFL, but he's one of the top 5 cornerbacks in the game because he studies and prepares like a mofo. In this video, he explains how he approaches preparing for games and shares some of the techniques he uses to gain an advantage over opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
Sherman is obviously really intelligent, but his experience demonstrates once again the value of preparation, hard work, and the diligent application of deliberate practice.
"Barry Sanders is my new idol," Bo Jackson said after a Raiders-Lions game in 1990. "I love the way the guy runs. When I grow up, I want to be just like him."
The Raiders won that game, and the Lions were 4-9 at the time, but it didn't even matter.
All anyone could talk about afterward was the "little water bug" who "might rewrite history."
This wasn't necessarily a metaphor for Barry's entire Lions career -- he was on more playoff teams than people remember -- but it definitely covers about half the years he spent in Detroit. Even when the Lions were awful, Barry would still have a few plays every game that would keep people gawking afterward.
Bo Jackson had a similar effect on people, which is part of what makes that old quote so cool. The Bo Jackson combination of speed and power is something we'd never seen before and haven't seen since. He was a cult hero then, and the legend has only grown over the years.
I've always been an atypical sports fan. I grew up in Wisconsin rooting for the Packers & Brewers but switched to being a Vikings & Cubs fan sometime in high school. But despite following the Vikings at the time, my favorite player in the NFL was Barry Sanders. For my money, Sanders was pure symphonic excellence in motion, the best running back (and perhaps player) the NFL had ever seen and maybe will ever see. I wonder if one of the reasons why I like Lionel Messi so much is because he reminds me of Sanders; in stature, in strength, in quickness, in skill. Compare and contrast some of their finest runs:
Every year, a bunch of folks play a game called Last Man, in which the participants attempt to be the last person to find out the result of the Super Bowl. TLDR did an entertaining podcast on this year's contestants.
Most of the runners, however, found themselves waking up each day in a cold sweat. "I feel like I'm being sequestered for the stupidest jury trial in modern history," one competitor said. "It's gotten to the point where three things may end me: recklessness, homesickness, or sheer boredom."
Jon Bois attempted to create the most lopsided game ever in Madden NFL on his Xbox. He beefed up the players on one team (7'0", 440 lbs, good at everything) and put a bunch of scrubs on the other team (5'0", 160 lbs, bad at everything). He started playing and was on pace to score more than 1500 points when...
With just under two minutes left in the first quarter, I was winning 366 to zero. I realized that I was on pace to score 1,500 points in a single game. I had never conceived of such a high score. I'd never even heard anyone talk idly about such a thing. There was absolutely nothing the Broncos could do to slow down my pace. I could score just as surely as someone can point and click. It was great. I wanted to ruin Madden in a way I never had before, and I was doing it.
And then it happened. Before I tell you what happened next, I want to lay out a couple of things: first, I made no actual hacks to this game. I didn't have some special jailbroken Xbox, nor a special copy of Madden, nor anything like that. I bought my Xbox at Target and bought my copy of Madden off Amazon, and that's that. Second, I stake whatever journalistic integrity I have upon the statement that I didn't Photoshop any of this, and that it happened just as I say it did.
This is LOL funny in several places...particularly the GIFs. (via @delfuego)
The Redskins' London Fletcher is undersized and thirty-eight years old, but he's been able to play for so long because he is a defensive Peyton Manning: seeing the game so lucidly, yelling out the offensive play about to unfold, changing alignments before the snap, organizing the field in real time. Similarly, Lavonte David, who has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two years, is just two hundred and thirty-four pounds -- ten to fifteen pounds lighter than most at his position -- the Wonderlic scores out on the Internet for him are not especially high, and, like all players, he makes the occasional boneheaded play. But he possesses dedicated study habits and a football clairvoyance that, come Sunday, finds him ignoring the blocking flow only at the one moment during a game when the offense runs the ball away from it.
The Hall of Fame Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds, the dimension of a modern fullback. Even so, Page was terrifying. His forty-yard-dash time wasn't anything special, either, but he says that he could run down faster opponents because he always had sense where he was in relation to the blur of bodies around him-he could "understand the situation." Page is now an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. "Being a football player requires you to take your emotional self to places that most people shouldn't go," he said. "You wouldn't want to get to know the person who was in my head on a football field. I likely see some of these people in my current job -- those who can't control that person -- and they do not very nice things."
I asked him, "You could control that person on a field?"
"Most of the time," Page said.
The safety, standing at the rear of the defense, must compensate for the mistakes of others; football intelligence matters more at this position than any other on the defense. At five-eight, a hundred and eighty-eight pounds, the Bills safety Jim Leonhard, a nine-year veteran, is among the smallest and also the slowest starting defensive backs in the game. And yet, watching him on film, he appears to teleport to the ball. Leonhard's name seems to enter any conversation about football intelligence; he knows every teammate's responsibilities in every call, and understands the game as twenty-two intersecting vectors. "He'd walk off the bus and you'd think he was the equipment manager," Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "He's still in the league because he's the quarterback of the defense."
In general, there are three types of announcer comments: good, neutral and bad. Good statements offer some type of insight into the game. This is inherently subjective, since different people know different things. Neutral statements constitute the bulk of their utterances: neither offensive nor insightful. As a result, I decided to measure the bad statements.
I divided announcers' verbal infractions into six categories that are not simply pet peeves, but likely to be annoyances for a majority of NFL viewers.
Happy to see Chris Collinsworth near the top of the heap...he's my favorite and, while a bit goofy sometimes, offers the best post-Madden analysis in the game. Siragusa and Gruden are like nails on the chalkboard, surprised they didn't rank much worse.
Football as Football is a collection of American football team logos in the style of European football club badges. Here are badges for the Detroit Lions (in the Italian style) and New England Patriots (in the Spanish style).
Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett is among a growing group of former NFL players who have been diagnosed with diseases caused by years of head trauma and other injuries.
The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.
Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.
"I've got to take them to places that I've been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don't know how to get there," he said.
The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and eighth all-time leading NFL rusher said he has trouble controlling his emotions and is prone to outbursts at his wife and daughters.
"It's painful, man, for my daughters to say they're scared of me." After a long pause, he tearfully reiterated, "It's painful."
In an interview with Fox affiliate WFLD-TV, aired Wednesday, the 53-year-old McMahon says he knows where he's going when in an airport. But when he meets people, "I'm asking two minutes later, 'Who was that?'
"When my friends call and leave me a message ... I'll read it and delete it before I respond and then I forget who called and left me a message."
McMahon says he is not worried about his mind withering away. He says he still reads a lot and is doing other things to keep his mind active. However, he said he doesn't know whether he is getting worse.
These stories are just going to keep coming. Perhaps a true tipping point will come when one of the league's past megastars is dianosed with CTE...if Brett Favre or Dan Marino or John Elway or Troy Aikman or Ray Lewis or any of the other former players that appear regularly on NFL game broadcasts announces he has CTE or dementia, maybe then the league will take real action? Or not? (via df)
Excerpts published Wednesday by ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated from the book, "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," report that the NFL used its power and resources to discredit independent scientists and their work; that the league cited research data that minimized the dangers of concussions while emphasizing the league's own flawed research; and that league executives employed an aggressive public relations strategy designed to keep the public unaware of what league executives really knew about the effects of playing the game.
Saw this awhile ago and was reminded of it b/c of a clip on Monday Night Football last night: comedy duo Key & Peele poke fun at the increasingly creative names and alma maters of football players in this sketch.
Nyquillus Dillwad, D'Pez Poopsie, Fartrell Cluggins, Ladennifer Jadaniston, and Benedict Cumberbatch are all on my fantasy team this year. See also last year's video. (Davoin Shower-Handel!)
It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that the NFL is a highly profitable business. But it might come as a shock that the league enjoys nonprofit status. From Gregg Easterbrook: How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers.
Taxpayers fund the stadiums, antitrust law doesn't apply to broadcast deals, the league enjoys nonprofit status, and Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $30 million a year. It's time to stop the public giveaways to America's richest sports league -- and to the feudal lords who own its teams.
I played football in high school, specifically offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker. So did my older and younger brothers, and my older brother coaches linemen and defense at a high school in Michigan. I started out first in middle school and high school as a defensive specialist, which makes sense given John Madden's theory of linemen.
Madden used to say that offensive linemen were overwhelmingly big kids who grew up to be big men, who'd always been told not to pick on but to protect kids smaller than them. Defensive linemen, on the other hand, were little kids who grew up fighting with other little kids (and often bigger kids) but who grew up to be big men. That's what I was: a skinny kid who became a fat adolescent who became a big, strong teenager. (Now I'm a strong, fat writer, so that's how that turned out.)
Madden said the problem is that offensive linemen still need to be as tough and aggressive as defensive linemen, but they always hold something back. Some of this is part of the rules of football: offensive linemen literally can't do everything a defensive lineman can do to them. So what Madden would do is take a tackling dummy and let his offensive linemen beat the hell out of it. Punch it, tear it, throw it across the room, it doesn't matter. Help them get to a point where they're no longer worried about being over-aggressive.
You should know this about offensive line coaches: they are large, demanding men with Falstaffian appetites, jutting jaws, and no governors on their speech engines. They eat titanic portions. They cram their lips full of dip in film study like they are loading a mortar. They drink bottled water like parched camels, and in their leisure time would consider a suitcase of beer to be a personal carry-on item for them, and them alone. They are terrifyingly disciplined in the moment, and nap like large breed dogs when allowed.
Now, even if Madden's amateur psychobiography of linemen were true when he was coaching, it's not true any more. In the 1990s, coaches got really good at taking tall but relatively slender athletes from every position, bulking them up, and sticking them at offensive line.
In high school, we played this guy named Jon Jansen, who ended up becoming a star offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, then coming home to Detroit and playing one year for the Lions before becoming an announcer. In high school, he weighed almost 100 pounds less than he did as a pro. He was listed then at 6'8", 230 lbs, and played tight end and middle linebacker. He was FAST. They moved him all over the field, catching touchdowns and uprooting people. It was chaos.
He went to Michigan, they redshirted him for his freshman year, and came back weighing 300 lbs and playing offensive line. Jansen told Bob Costas that he thought between 15 to 20 percent of NFL players were using illegal performance enhancing drugs, noting that the NFL didn't then test for human growth hormone. I remember when I was still in high school reading a long profile of the University of Nebraska's offensive linemen that attributed their huge gains in mass and strength to weightlifting and creatine. Draw your own conclusions about what was happening in pro and college football at the time.
This is all to say that what offensive linemen do in football is not well understood. When the NFL finally started to act on widespread concussions and the resultant uptick in chronic traumatic encephalopathy — if you never have, please read about the life and death of Dave Duerson — they focused on open-field helmet-to-helmet hits and defensive players targeting quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers (so-called "skill positions"). They ignored the constant battering that offensive linemen take, how repeated brain injury poses the greatest risk for long-term problems, how linemen are rewarded for staying on the field and playing through pain, and the ways in which they're encouraged to both be more aggressive and prioritize someone else's safety over their own.
Kurt Vonnegut said that his chief objection to life in general was that it was "too easy, when alive, to make horrible mistakes." This is what offensive line coaches live with: the notion that for every five simple circles drawn on a board, there are a nearly infinite number of possible threats looming out in the theoretical white space. Offensive plays give skill players arrows. Those arrows point down the field toward an endzone, a stopping point, a celebration. Those five simple circles stay on the board in the same place, and are on duty forever.
They are rough men in the business of protection.
Today, Hall has one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, human pieces on offensive linemen I've ever read, and which I've been quoting here throughout. It's called "The Business Of Protection," and subtitled "It Is Never, Ever About You." It's a story about Vanderbilt University's offensive line coach Herb Hand, who suffered a sudden and life-threatening brain hemorrhage waiting in line at a hotel breakfast bar on a recruiting trip. But Hand's story manages to become equally about football, fatherhood, the brain, the heart, how we defend ourselves from what's horrible in the things we love, and how we defend the people closest to us from ourselves.
When Hand had to have the impossible conversation — the one where you, with cellphone, stuck in a hospital far away from home, might have to say the last words you ever say to your children — he did what he was trained to do. He told them that he loved them, and that everything would be okay. The second part of that might not have been true at the time. The emergency room doctor certainly didn't think so, and neither did Hand. But standing between harm and others is what linemen do, even if there's little hope to be had in the face of numbers, size, and speed. There is a dot on the board, and a shield held against whatever slings and arrows lurk in the ether. It stands against harm until it cannot any longer.
This figure includes legal fees, medical exams, the cost of noticing former players, and $10 million for research and education on the long-term effect of brain injuries, leaving $675 million to compensate former players who've suffered cognitive injuries (or, if dead, their families). The settlement applies only to players who've retired by the time court approves its terms. Current players will need a separate agreement to be compensated for existing and future injuries, and the NFL admits no liability.
As Buzzfeed sportswriter Erik Malinowski notes on Twitter: "Holy crap, what a bargain... ESPN pays $1.9 billion *every year* for Monday Night Football. 4,500 ex-players will get 40% of that (once) for decades of head trauma."
If you don't know anything about football and yet are interested in (or being coerced into) watching the big game this weekend, here are some players' stories that might make it more interesting for you.
Whether actively experiencing the spectacle or not, there are a few reasons to like the Super Bowl in 2013, besides the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are the first major professional sports franchise, so far, to be named after a 19th century poem. For starters, in a sports year that's already brought us doping cyclists and fake dead girlfriends, the teams in this year's contest are welcome standouts. The San Francisco 49ers were the first NFL team to join the "It Gets Better" campaign, and their opponent, the Ravens, has a team captain who is the most outspoken advocate of LGBT rights in the NFL, and whose presence has evolved the once overtly homophobic locker-room culture of his entire team.
I loved this line in reference to Colin Kapernick's replacement of Alex Smith as the 49ers' starting QB:
The deliberate, steady bus was replaced by a flaming Apache helicopter flown by a nude Vladimir Putin.
"We were saddened to learn that Junior, a loving father and teammate, suffered from CTE," the family said in a statement released to the AP. "While Junior always expected to have aches and pains from his playing days, none of us ever fathomed that he would suffer a debilitating brain disease that would cause him to leave us too soon.
"We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior. But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations."
Plaintiffs are listed as Gina Seau, Junior's ex-wife; Junior's children Tyler, Sydney, Jake and Hunter, and Bette Hoffman, trustee of Seau's estate.
The lawsuit accuses the league of glorifying the violence in pro football, and creating the impression that delivering big hits "is a badge of courage which does not seriously threaten one's health."
It singles out NFL Films and some of its videos for promoting the brutality of the game.
Seau is a pretty boldfaced name...I wonder what effect this will have on public perception, etc.
CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease that could dramatically change the way pro football is played in the future (if it's played at all), can't be identified in victims until after death. That makes it difficult to prove (or disprove) the connection between pro football, concussions, and death from CTE. But researchers have discovered a possible technique that could diagnose CTE in living patients.
Last year five retired N.F.L. players who were 45 years and older and suffered from mood swings, depression and cognitive problems were given PET, or positron emission tomography, scans. The authors of the study said those scans revealed tau protein deposits in their brains, a signature of C.T.E. While not definitive, the distribution of tau in the retired players was consistent with those found in the autopsies of players who had C.T.E.
If it's actually possible, this could be huge. Many more players, current and former, can be tested and diagnosed and if CTE was found regularly and consistently, you'd think that insurance companies would flee from the NFL like rats leaving a sinking ship and football would have to adapt (to be more like soccer? flag football?) or die.
"The worst injury I've ever had on the field -- for my wife and kids, at least, and my mom and dad -- was an injury I got against the 49ers," says Matt Hasselbeck. "Patrick Willis hit me as I was diving for the goal line. He hit me, and twenty minutes later I'm in an ambulance on my way to Stanford Medical. I'd broken a rib on the left and I'd broken a rib on the right. The rib on the right was right next to my aorta, and it was really dangerous for my health. I couldn't breathe. It was like there was a weight on top of me. It's a scary thing, because it feels like you're drowning. I couldn't breathe at all, and I got up off the field because it was a two-minute situation - I didn't want the team to have to take a time-out. I tried to run off the field, and when the trainers met me they saw I was, like, purple in the face. And they immediately put me on the ground. Sometimes they'll put you on the ground to evaluate you and sometimes to give the backup quarterback a chance to get loose. They put me on the ground because I was purple."
That instinct - the instinct to run when you can't breathe in order to save your team a time-out - is not one often encountered in civilian life. Indeed, it is one encountered almost exclusively in war, in which people's lives, rather than simply their livelihoods, are at stake. Now, the NFL is replete with military symbolism, not to mention military pretensions. But the reality of injury is what makes it more than fantasy football, more than professional wrestling, more than an action movie, more than a video game played with moving parts who happen to be human. The reality of injury - and the phantasmagoric world of pain - is what makes it, legitimately, a blood sport. And it is what makes Dr. Yates, the Steelers' team doctor, define his job simply and bluntly: "My job is to protect players from themselves."
Former NFL star Jason Taylor was so injured (and yet still playing every week) that for a period of two years, the 6'6" 240-pound linebacker couldn't lift his kids into bed. So how did he play? Shots to kill the pain and then more shots to kill the pain of the first shots. And so on. Until he almost had to have his leg amputated.
The trainer rushed to Taylor's house. Taylor thought he was overreacting. The trainer told him they were immediately going to the hospital. A test kit came out. Taylor's blood pressure was so high that the doctors thought the test kit was faulty. Another test. Same crazy numbers. Doctors demanded immediate surgery. Taylor said absolutely not, that he wanted to call his wife and his agent and the famed Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion. Andrews also recommended surgery, and fast. Taylor said, fine, he'd fly out in owner Daniel Snyder's private jet in the morning. Andrews said that was fine but that he'd have to cut off Taylor's leg upon arrival. Taylor thought he was joking. Andrews wasn't. Compartment syndrome. Muscle bleeds into the cavity, causing nerve damage. Two more hours, and Taylor would have had one fewer leg. Fans later sent him supportive notes about their own compartment syndrome, many of them in wheelchairs.
"I was mad because I had to sit out three weeks," he says. "I was hot."
He had seven to nine inches of nerve damage.
"The things we do," he explains. "Players play. It is who we are. We always think we can overcome."
At the New Yorker, Reeves Wiedeman reminds us that the NFL is unlikely to change because so much of what happens with injuries is hidden from view.
As we watch a game that we know is dangerous, we soothe ourselves with the idea that these men must be aware of the risks, too; that they are being well compensated to take on those risks; and that, at least when they're on the field, in front of the cameras, they are living the dream that we all craved as kids, and they're having fun.
But what we can take from this story, and from the fact that, on the surface, this weekend's games were filled with such excitement, is the fact that so much of football's barbarism takes place beyond our vision and behind closed doors.
Troy Aikman moves around the field at Cowboys Stadium as if he owns the place, but in a previous-owner kind of way. He'll soon call a game here for Fox. People scream his name from the stands as he moves toward midfield to meet a head coach and a PR man. The sportcaster's partner, Joe Buck, sits up in the booth, preparing. The Cowboys. The Saints. Thanksgiving Day. Here's the behind-the-scenes look at how Fox's broadcast of the game happens.
If Aikman -- and Buck, too -- have any misconceptions about their comedic chops, it's because, for several months out of the year, they are surrounded by people who laugh too hard at their jokes or anything that even seems like a joke. The next day, Aikman makes the slightest quip about the size of the enormous screen that hovers above the field at Cowboys Stadium -- certainly strip-mined ground even a couple of months after the place opened. The reaction he receives would seem improbable even if Louis C.K. had delivered the line.
Pretty interesting. Aikman and Buck are among my favorite football announcers, but they're not as good as Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth or John Madden and Anyone At All.
"I think it's important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from CTE," Gina Seau said. "It's important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don't want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes."
She said the family was told that Seau's disease resulted from "a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years of playing in the NFL. And that it gradually, you know, developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically."
What followed was something like the movie scene where every non-essential part on the plane is removed in order to make it light enough to take off from the short, improvised runway. First to go were any tunes longer than 30 seconds. Then, after the 2009 season in which Kelly became Oregon's head coach, Wiltshire ditched the flipbook on which the songs were written in favor of hand signals. "By the time I flipped a page," he says, "it was already too late." Knowing he had to serve two masters -- playing faster while still engaging the audience -- Wiltshire hit upon a new idea: theme music. Now whenever one of Oregon's star players gets a first down, the band plays the first five chords of a recognizable song: the "Hawaii Five-O" theme for quarterback Marcus Mariota (because he's originally from Hawaii); "Mambo No. 5" for De'Anthony Thomas (because his nickname is "the Black Mamba"); and the "Superman" theme for Kenjon Barner (because he's really good).
Last week, the hosts of NFL Kick Off on ESPN, Trey Wingo, Mark Sclereth, and Tedy Bruschi, jammed as many Princess Bride references as they could into their half hour show. Jack Moore collected them. Genuine guffaw at "There will be no survivors" from around :45.
I missed this when it was announced in August, but there will be a third series of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary films, and one scheduled to air in December will feature Bo Jackson.
A close look at the man and marketing campaign that shaped his legacy. Even without winning a Super Bowl or World Series, Bo redefined the role of the athlete in the pop cultural conversation. More than 20 years later, myths and legends still surround Bo Jackson, and his impossible feats still capture our collective imagination.
In almost every case, the perceived skill-level gender gap between males and females is overblown. One exception: Throwing. According to one researcher: "The overhand throwing gap, beginning at 4 years of age, is three times the difference of any other motor task, and it just gets bigger across age. By 18, there's hardly any overlap in the distribution: Nearly every boy by age 15 throws better than the best girl." About the only thing I can do better than my wife is manage a browser with 65 open tabs.
Apparently no one told Erin DiMeglio about this throwing research. She plays quarterback on her high school football team in Florida.
On Thursday, 80 lawsuits against the NFL related to brain injuries and concussions were combined into one complaint and filed in Philadelphia. The suit also names helmet maker Ridell, and if I'm reading the article correctly, 2100 former players are involved in the case.
Former running back Kevin Turner, now suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease, said:
The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions. The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have. For the longest time, about the first 10 years after I retired in January 2000, I thought I had just turned into a loser overnight. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. It was a very scary proposition -- until I found out there were a lot more guys just like me. I find they had been through some of the same struggles. I realized this is no longer a coincidence.
Back in February, we linked to a Grantland piece by economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier about head injuries leading to the end of the NFL. In their version, injuries to high school and college students result in lawsuits making the sport prohibitively expensive to offer to their students (along with a perception that it's too dangerous for kids to play).
Is this case the beginning of that timeline? Depending on what comes out in the lawsuit, one (unjust) popular opinion will be that the players should have known they were playing a dangerous game and they were handsomely rewarded to boot. It's not really a fair opinion, but people love their football. (You can see evidence of this in the comments to the ESPN article linked at the top.) A best case scenario, I would think, would be for the NFL to settle with some sort of acknowledgement of the issue. Not lip-service, but actual changes to current policies and future support for former players.
In happier NFL news, Trick Shot Quarterback, Alex Tanney was signed yesterday by the KC Chiefs. Regardless of setting the NCAA Division III record for passing with 14,249 yards, the NCAA record for touchdowns with 157, and only throwing 30 interceptions in college, Tanney had gone undrafted.
Grantland's Bill Simmons and the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell had one of their epic email conversations the other day and posted it to Grantland. Topics included the NBA playoffs, sports journalism, LeBron, fame in the internet era, sports philosophers, and football concussions.
Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What's our game plan for the fact that -- thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations -- a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There's Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he's performing a public service. He's one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, "This couldn't be a dumber relationship right now."
After negotiating your contracts, you both will surely buy a house in an affluent suburb where no 22-year-old would be happy living. Your new neighbors will be rich as well, facelifted, lipo-sucked, Xanaxed and dripping in diamonds, simply delighted to welcome you to the neighborhood. You will commission an interior decorator, recommended by a neighbor, to furnish your home. This will guarantee it feels nothing like Home. And someday, when all of this is over, you'll walk through and gaze upon the marble columns and the embroidered drapes like artifacts in a museum, wondering why you ever listened to that woman.
A fine companion to this letter from former NFL player Trevor Pryce.
"Early retirement" sounds wonderful. It certainly did that cold night in Pittsburgh. I was going to use my time to conquer the world.
Boy, was I wrong. Now I find myself in music chat rooms arguing the validity of Frank Zappa versus the Mars Volta. (If the others only knew Walkingpnumonia was the screen name for a former All-Pro football player and not some Oberlin College student trying to find his place in the world.) I wrote a book. I set sail on the picturesque and calming waters of Bodymore, Murdaland. And when I'm in dire straits, I do what any 8-year-old does; I kick a soccer ball against the garage hoping somebody feels sorry and says, "Hey, want to play?"
With millions of Americans out of work or doing work for which they are overqualified, I consider myself lucky. But starting from scratch can be unsettling. If you're not prepared for it, retirement can become a form of self-imposed exile from the fulfillment and the exhilaration of knowing you did a good job.
I don't think this has anything to do with the actual invention of the football helmet, so consider this a more hilarious alternate history. Watch as the inventor of a new type of safer helmet gets kicked in the head, repeatedly bonked in the noggin with a baseball bat, and runs himself into a wall, over and over again.
This is the oldest surviving clip of an American football game, in which we see Princeton and Yale battle in 1903.
The game footage starts at around 2:00. It resembles the current game of football in name only...before the forward pass, yards and points were difficult to come by and the game seems more like rugby or 11-on-11 wrestling. (via sly oyster)
This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players -- or worse, high schoolers -- commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.
For instance, there's Mark Herzlich, a former top NFL prospect who was diagnosed with bone cancer while in college, took a year off to beat the disease, returned to the game, and then went undrafted by every NFL team. As a last-ditch, he auditioned for training camp. By November, about two years after undergoing chemotherapy, Mark was a starting linebacker for the Giants.
There's five-foot-seven Danny Woodhead of the Patriots, a player considered too small even for Division I college football, who went to the only place that wanted him, a little school in Nebraska called Chadron State, where he worked his ass off, and by the time he graduated, he was college football's all-time leading rusher. He's still so anonymous that he worked at a sporting goods store on a day off last year and pretty much no one recognized him. Now he's a running back for a team in the goddamned Super Bowl.
The NFL regards the "All-22" footage of their games -- the zoomed-out view of the game that includes the movements of all 22 players on the field -- as proprietary and releases it to very few people. But it's difficult to fully understand the game without it.
For decades, NFL TV broadcasts have relied most heavily on one view: the shot from a sideline camera that follows the progress of the ball. Anyone who wants to analyze the game, however, prefers to see the pulled-back camera angle known as the "All 22."
While this shot makes the players look like stick figures, it allows students of the game to see things that are invisible to TV watchers: like what routes the receivers ran, how the defense aligned itself and who made blocks past the line of scrimmage.
By distributing this footage only to NFL teams, and rationing it out carefully to its TV partners and on its web site, the NFL has created a paradox. The most-watched sport in the U.S. is also arguably the least understood. "I don't think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game," says former head coach Bill Parcells. The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a "fragment" of what happens on the field.
And in the most the most important single passing statistic, the one that correlates best with winning, yards per throw, Manning has an edge, 7.6 to 7.4 [for Tom Brady].
The most important stat? Is 0.2 yards really much of a difference? Correlates best with winning? Let's look at the stats. That lists Brady being slightly *ahead* of Manning...and Tony Romo and Philip Rivers ahead of both of them. I call shenanigans. For me, it's a toss-up between Manning and Brady...you'd have to flip a coin to find the winner. Both are really fun to watch and I hope Manning does make it back from his injury.
He left several suicide notes and text messages asking for his brain to be examined post-mortem for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a disease caused by repeated untreated concussions now thought to be common among professional football players and other athletes -- which he thought may have led to his depression. An autopsy later revealed that Duerson was right.
Gus Garcia-Roberts has a magnificent story on Duerson -- his childhood, football career, post-NFL life as an entrepreneur, and his dip into bankruptcy and mental illness, both of which he tried desperately to cover until the day he died.
To its black residents, Muncie -- nicknamed "Little Chicago" because it was divisively and forever segregated -- felt like a village. And by his high school graduation in 1978, Dave was the golden child. He was a member of the National Honor Society, had traveled through Europe playing the sousaphone as part of the Musical Ambassadors All-American Band, and in his senior year was voted Indiana Mr. Football. He could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and throw a fastball at 95 mph. "I thought he might go on to be a senator," Kizer says, "or anything he wanted."
The Los Angeles Dodgers offered Dave a signing bonus to pitch for them. But when the Dodgers' scouts told his father there was "no time for college," Dave later recounted to HistoryMakers, "that was a very short conversation."
He enrolled in his home state's University of Notre Dame on a football and baseball scholarship. Once there, football dominated his schedule, and his baseball prospects faded away.
Dave would later say that, for the career longevity, he wished he had chosen baseball. Decades down the road -- after the undiagnosed concussions, headaches, mood swings, memory loss, erratic behavior, and, finally, the suicide -- his family would agree.
Players who began their careers knowing the likely costs to their knees and shoulders are only now learning about the cognitive risks, too. After years of denying or discrediting evidence of football's impact on the brain -- from C.T.E. in deceased players to an increasing number of retirees found to have dementia or other memory-related disease -- the N.F.L. has spent the last year addressing the issue, mostly through changes in concussion management and playing rules.
Duerson sent text messages to his family before he shot himself specifically requesting that his brain be examined for damage, two people aware of the messages said. Another person close to Duerson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Duerson had commented to him in recent months that he might have C.T.E., an incurable disease linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline.
Growing up in abject poverty in Houston, Texas, Donald, his mother, and brother lived, at various times, in a U-Haul, out of a car, and on the streets. As a young teen, Donald used his intelligence, natural dexterity and quick hands to become an extremely effective car thief. He sold the cars to buy drugs, which he then turned around and sold for more money. He believes he stole up to thirty cars, and was only caught once.
The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art have agreed to a Super Bowl bet! Even better: The museums have put major works by major artists on the line. The bet continues an annual tradition begun last year when MAN instigated a wager between the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Both museums are offering up significant impressionist paintings: The Carnegie Museum of Art has wagered Pierre Renoir's playful, fleshy Bathers with a Crab (cicra 1890-99, above) on a Pittsburgh Steelers victory. The Milwaukee Art Museum has put on the line Gustave Caillebotte's serene Boating on the Yerres (1877, below).
In the Seahawks/Saints game over the weekend, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch made an improbable game-winning touchdown run. So, I can't decide which one of these videos is better. Marshawn Lynch's Tecmo Bowl Run:
One grew up in the South; the other grew up in Northern California. One was picked first overall; the other was picked 199th. One looks like a bouncer; the other looks like a movie star. One has been considered the best at every level since high school; the other had to repeatedly fight to prove he belonged. For years, one was considered "the talented guy who can't come through when it matters;" the other was considered "the overachiever who always comes through when it matters." One embraced his celebrity and enjoyed it, making goofy commercials, parodying himself in sketches and cultivating an image as a relatable Southern guy; the other morphed into an actual celebrity, dating actresses and supermodels, moving to New York and then California, gracing various magazine covers, sponsoring watches and boots, and becoming famous for playing football and for being famous.
If there's an enduring snapshot of each guy, it's their postgame news conferences: Brady impeccably dressed and coiffed, looking like he has to bolt in a second because he's headed for a photo shoot; Manning standing there with that swollen, red helmet blotch on his forehead, looking like he's about to be whisked away to the hospital for X-rays. At first glance, you'd assume Brady was the No. 1 overall pick who had been anointed as "The Next Great Quarterback" since he was 15 and Manning was the one picked 199th who had to fight for everything. Nope.
But, as Simmons curiously fails to mention, the big problem with same-position rivalries in a game like football is that Manning and Brady do not directly compete against each other. Their teams play, but the two are never on the field at the same time. Never. Contrast that with tennis, soccer, hockey, and even (sorta) baseball. And basketball. Especially basketball. Kobe and Wade (to pick just one example) battle one another at both ends of the floor for the entire game.
The manufacturing process for the official NFL football made by Wilson:
It's fascinating that every football used in the NFL for the past 20-30 years has been made by Deb, Loretta, Peg, Glen, Emmitt, Tina, Etta Mae, Pam, and Michelle. Also, they call the pre-laced, pre-inflated ball a carcass! (thx, peter)
Update: The NY Times takes a slightly different look at the Wilson factory, through the eyes of Jane Helser, who sewed footballs there for almost 50 years.
In the city of the distance-running legend Steve Prefontaine -- Eugene is known as Tracktown, U.S.A., and is also where the sporting-goods company Nike was started -- Kelly has transformed football into an aerobic sport. This style is particularly of the moment because it is apparent that football, at least in the short term, will become less violent. Kelly's teams have found a new way to intimidate, one that does not involve high-speed collisions and head injuries. "Some people call it a no-huddle offense, but I call it a no-breathing offense," Mark Asper, an Oregon offensive lineman, told me. "It's still football. We hit people. But after a while, the guys on the other side of the line are so gassed that you don't have to hit them very hard to make them fall over."
In Kelly's offense, the point of a play sometimes seems to be just to get it over with, line up and run another. The play that preceded the last touchdown was a one-yard loss -- a setback in traditional offensive schemes in which down and distance are paramount. But "third and long" is not as difficult a proposition for the offense when the opposing defense can barely stand up. "Obviously, all of our plays are designed to gain yards," Gary Campbell, Oregon's running-backs coach, explained. "But our guys understand the cumulative effect of running them really fast."
Last week, Bill Simmons accidentally tweeted about a possible trade that would send American footballer Randy Moss from the Patriots to the Vikings and got the entire sports world whipped up into a frenzy. His explanation of what actually happened provides an interesting glimpse into how sports media sausage is made.
The first thing you need to know: I don't like breaking stories or the pressure that accompanies it. Sweating out those last few minutes before the moment of truth. Hoping you're right even though you're thinking, "I know I'm right. I have to be right. This is right. (Pause.) Am I right?" Wondering deep down, "I hope my source isn't betraying me," then rehashing every interaction you've ever had with that person. My stomach just isn't built for it. If I had Marc Stein's job, I'd be chain-smoking Lucky Strikes like Don Draper.
At the same time, I know a few Guys Who Know Things at this point. Whenever I stumble into relevant information -- it doesn't happen that often -- my first goal is always to assimilate that material into my column (as long as it's not time-sensitive). Sometimes I redirect the information to an ESPN colleague. Sometimes I keep it in my back pocket and wait for more details. It's a delicate balance. I have never totally figured out what to do.
Ultimately, he says, he'd love to make a go of playing football professionally. He's being deadly serious. One of the perks of being Usain Bolt is that sporting stars love to meet him, so whenever he's travelling and there's time, he tries to train with a top football team. Last year it was Manchester United, a few days ago it was Bayern Munich. He's still carrying a copy of the French sporting newspaper L'Equipe, which features a spread on his football skills and praise from Bayern manager Louis van Gaal. He shows me a photo of himself with his arm wrapped round the dwarfed 6ft German forward Miroslav Klose. "If I keep myself in shape, I can definitely play football at a high level," he says.
"With his physical skills, I reckon he could play in the Premier League," Simms says.
Professional American football would be even more of a no brainer...Randy Moss with Darrell Green speed++.
The Raiders organization welcomed sixth-round draft choice Travis Goethel Wednesday and said the Arizona State linebacker would more than likely be asked to start as a Bay-area Realtor by the beginning of next season.
In 1994, the spot of the kickoff was moved to the 30-yard line from the 35, allowing for longer returns that put the receiving team into field-goal range with just a few plays or a long penalty. Since then, the team that won the toss won 59.8 percent of the time, because even if it did not win on the first possession, it often controlled field position. The team that lost the toss won just 38.4 percent of the time. And before the kickoff was moved, teams won with a field goal on the opening possession just 17.9 percent of the time. After the kickoff moved, it rose to 26.8 percent of the time.
I'm pretty happy about this. Like I said after the Saints/Vikings game in January:
Congrats to the Saints, but the coin-toss sudden death OT thing has to be the worst rule in sports.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art have a Super Bowl bet...the loser loans a significant piece of art to the winner for three months. The directors of the two museums trash talked back and forth via email and Twitter before agreeing on the paintings to be loaned.
"Max Anderson must not really believe the Colts can beat the Saints in the Super Bowl. Otherwise why would he bet such an insignificant work as the Ingrid Calame painting? Let's up the ante. The New Orleans Museum of Art will bet the three-month loan of its Renoir painting, Seamstress at Window, circa 1908, which is currently in the big Renoir exhibition in Paris. What will Max wager of equal importance? Go Saints!"
So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps.
The cops also thought it was wrong to drop the case just because a piece-of-shit famous person might be guilty of shooting a piece-of-shit unfamous person in a piece-of-shit part of the city. If prosecutors required every witness to have a pristine record, one detective says, "most of the cases in the city wouldn't be solved." None of the cops doubted for a second that if Harrison was a plumber or a UPS driver instead of a famous athlete, he'd have long since been arrested.
Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Rams last January, was one coach who appreciated what [Giants punter Jeff] Feagles could do. "I used to tell Jeff he was our most valuable player on defense," Spagnuolo says. "He didn't worry about his yardage or net punt average. All he worried about was putting our defense in the best position. He's a tremendous directional punter. He was always trying to back the offense inside the 10, and nobody did it better."
And of course I love this quote by Feagles:
The punter's mind is a lot more powerful than his leg.
How accurate are all those preseason predictions about how the coming NFL season will unfold?
In an effort to find out, I collected a number of preseason "team power rankings" two days before the 2009 NFL regular season started in September. These ranking lists are compiled by columnists and pundits from media outlets like Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, The Sporting News, and ESPN. In addition, I collected a fan-voted ranking from Yahoo Sports and the preseason Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl. As a baseline of sorts, I've also included the ranking for how the teams finished in the 2008 season.
Each team ranking from each list was compared to the final 2009 regular season standings (taken from this tentative 2010 draft order) by calculating the offset between the estimated rank to the team's actual finish. For instance, ESPN put the Steelers in the #1 slot but they actually finished 15th in the league...so ESPN's offset for the Steelers is 14. For each list, the offsets for all 32 teams were added up and divided by 32 to get the average number of places that the list was off by. See ESPN's list at right for example; you can see that each team ranking in the list was off by an average of about 6.3 places.
Here are the offset averages for each list (from best to worst):
Offset ave. (# of places)
The Sporting News
The good news is that all of the pundits beat the baseline ranking of last season's final standings. But they didn't beat it by that much...only 1.7 places in the best case. A few other observations:
- All the lists were pretty much the same. Last place Fox Sports and first place CBS Sports differ by less than one place in their rankings. The Steelers and Patriots were one and two on every list and the bottom five were pretty consistent as well. All the pundits said basically the same thing; no one had an edge or angle the others didn't.
- Nearly everyone was very wrong about the Steelers, Giants, Titans, Jets, Bengals, and Saints...and to a lesser extent, the Redskins, Bears, Vikings, and Packers. CBS Sports made the fewest big mistakes; their offset for the Bengals was only 4 places. The biggest mistakes were Fox Sports' choice and the Vegas ranking of the Bengals to finish 28th (offset: 19).
- Among the top teams, the Colts, Eagles, and Patriots more or less fulfilled the hopes of the pundits; only Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated missed the mark on one of these teams (the Colts by 9 places).
- The two "wisdom of the crowds" lists, Yahoo Sports and the Vegas list, ended up in the middle, better than some but not as good as some others. I suspect that there was not enough independent information out there for the crowd to make a good collective choice; those two lists looked pretty much like the pundits' lists.
- The teams who turned out to be bad were easier to pick than the good teams. The bottom five picks on each list were typically off by 3-5 places while the top five were off by more like 8-12 places (esp the Steelers and the Giants). Not sure why this is. Perhaps badness is easier to see than goodness. Or it's easier for a good-looking team to go bad than it is for bad-looking team to do better.
Methodology and notes: 1) I made an assumption about all these power ranking lists: that what the pundits were really picking is the final regular season ranking. That isn't precisely true but close enough for our purposes. 2) I have no idea what the statistical error is here. 3) The 2010 draft order list isn't a perfect ranking of how the teams finished, but it is close enough. 4) Using the final regular season records as the determining factor of rank is problematic because of the playoffs. By the end of the season, some teams aren't trying to win every game because they've either made the playoffs or haven't. So some teams might be a little bit better or worse than their records indicate. 5) The Vegas odds list was a rankng of the odds of each team making the Super Bowl, not the odds for the teams' final records. But close enough. 6) The Sports Illustrated list was from before the 2009 pre-season started; I couldn't find an SI list from right before the regular season. Still, it looked a lot like the other lists and did middlingly well.
Among the weakest designs are the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose visually complicated logos become a graphic mess when televised and, I imagine, even if you're sitting on the fifty-yard line. At the very the bottom of the list are the New England Patriots. The Patriots' helmet is plastered with their logo, which comes dangerously close to looking like a wind-swept John Kerry dressed up like a Minute Man.
I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I'd hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn't come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don't remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you'd get into a collision where everything goes off. You're dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.
N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs -- there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. -- they return to the huddle still hurt.
Let's say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let's say the scientific community -- starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country -- comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league's antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. "I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players," Waters said. "We all know it's a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it's the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away."
Over time, a river relentlessly wears away its banks and, as a result, water flows faster and faster toward its mouth. When obstacles fall in its way, say, a tree, or a boulder-or in the case of an NFL offense, beefy linebackers like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis or the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher-it will figure out how to wear those away, too. "The game is a flow system, a river basin of bodies that are milling around trying to find the most effective and easiest way to move," says Prof. Bejan. "Over time you will end up with the right way to play the game, with the patterns that are the most efficient."
The possibility of a sudden time-in would loom large in every coach's mind at the most tense points in the game, introducing just enough concern and uncertainty to make the game different. Timeworn clock-management strategies would no longer be a given. And yet, for the average viewer on a Sunday, the game on the field would still be your father's football.
Todd Marinovich was supposed to be the best quarterback of all time. Instead, his life got derailed by drugs and alcohol and even more drugs. His dad has to be the all-time worst sports parent in the history of horrible sports parents...it was difficult to get through page 2 without wanting to FedEx Marinovich Sr. a punch in the face.
For the nine months prior to Todd's birth on July 4, 1969, Trudi used no salt, sugar, alcohol, or tobacco. As a baby, Todd was fed only fresh vegetables, fruits, and raw milk; when he was teething, he was given frozen kidneys to gnaw. As a child, he was allowed no junk food; Trudi sent Todd off to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins. By age three, Marv had the boy throwing with both hands, kicking with both feet, doing sit-ups and pull-ups, and lifting light hand weights. On his fourth birthday, Todd ran four miles along the ocean's edge in thirty-two minutes, an eight-minute-mile pace. Marv was with him every step of the way.
Update: In 1988 Sports Illustrated ran an article about Marinovich while he was still in high school: Bred To Be A Superstar. (via josh)
I was up waaay too early this morning watching some trending topics on Twitter Search and John Madden's name suddenly appeared. When you see a boldface name pop up on Twitter Search like that, it usually means they've died. I'm glad Madden's not dead but I'm sad that he's retiring from calling football games. I know he wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but I loved listening to him.
The television crews don't just broadcast games, they inhabit them. They know the players, the teams, the stats, and the strategies. They interview players and coaches the day before the game. They brainstorm, anticipate, plot likely story lines, prepare graphic packages of important stats, and bundle replays from previous contests to bring a sense of history and context to the event. They are not just pointing cameras and broadcasting the feed, they are telling the story of the game as it happens.
Just this morning I was thinking about how successful the instant replay rule has been for NFL broadcasts. TV instant replay predated its use by the referees, but now the review process has some weight behind it and provides extra drama, particularly in exciting moments of the game. The Santonio Holmes touchdown catch in the final moments of the Super Bowl is the perfect example. From the perspective of "telling the story of the game", the catch was amazing. But what the review process does is delay the release of tension for a minute or two...it's a mini-cliffhanger inserted into a sport that doesn't have any natural cliffhanging moments. Showing the replays over and over while the ref makes his decision also brings the viewer into the story itself, as though he is playing the part of the reviewing referee. (thx, john)
The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [college QB] Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft -- that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance -- and how well he played in the pros.
A group of researchers -- Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard's school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress--have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications -- as much as they appear related to teaching prowess -- turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.
The upshot is that NFL quarterbacking and teaching are both jobs that need to be performed in order to find out if a certain person is good at them or not. For more, check out a follow-up post on Gladwell's blog.
The "Star" cam isolates on one player from each team-or, in the case of the Tampa-Seattle game, five different players. Other "stars" have included Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu, Jacksonville QB David Gerrard, and Cleveland wideout Braylon Edwards. For quarterbacks, this feature is a bit redundant-the camera's always on the guy with the ball-but it's fantastic for the other positions. Watching Polamalu fly around the field at full speed on every play is fantastic, and not just because his jouncing hair is hypnotic. Few athletes play with Polamalu's reckless abandon, and it's thrilling to try to forecast collisions by watching him bounce around the iso cam.
The Star cam works even better for receivers. After watching Ward and Edwards for three straight hours, I now understand why so many wide receivers are narcissistic-their job is to run one wind sprint after another with only the occasional ball thrown their way to break up the track workout.
TBS did this for the baseball playoffs too, except that they omitted the actual broadcast online and provided only extra footage/angles. Adding to Slate's complaints of no replays (it's streaming video only, no pausing, etc.) and no stats info on the other angles, I'd add that based on my experience watching the game online last night, they need something other than a test pattern and piercing tone to indicate that the video player is lagging and buffering. Perhaps a silent "please wait, buffering..." message instead?
City officials have patiently assisted Tongan residents acclimate to a new culture, Faiva-Siale said. Compromises have been reached to accommodate large family gatherings at funeral rituals that last for days. And the city has promoted alternatives to the slaughtering of pigs at home for open-pit cooking. A mobile health unit helps to provide free flu shots and medical checkups.
Thus, the first tenet of Maddenism: a football game can be understood only by analyzing all its complexity. As he once put it: "Football isn't nuclear physics, but it's not so simple that you can make it simple. It takes some explaining to get it across."
This is also the rare profile that mentions nothing about Madden's bus and fear of flying.
Writer Mark Bowden sits down with Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid to watch film from a classic football game, the 1958 NFL championship game. At several points during the session, 1958 football and contemporary football don't even seem like the same game. Perhaps the biggest disparity is the difference in pay:
Most pro players in the 1950s held down full-time jobs off the field. Huff was a salesman for the textile company J. P. Stevens. Unitas and many of his teammates worked at Bethlehem Steel. Art Donovan, the Colts' hilarious defensive tackle known as Fatso, was a liquor salesman. Most of the men earned less than $10,000 a year playing football. The highest-paid stars made between $15,000 and $20,000 -- enough to support a middle-class lifestyle in 1958, but nothing like today's hefty paychecks. Players who took off from their full-time jobs to play were often expected to make up the time by working long hours in the off-season.
New for the 2008 NFL season: the NFL TV distribution maps that tell you which football games are going to be broadcast is which parts of the country. They're using zoomable Google Maps this year...here's what a typical coverage map looks like:
During football season in a TV market like NYC, which is dominated by coverage of two local teams (Giants and Jets), this is an essential tool for determining if you're actually gonna get to watch the game you want to on Sunday.
For the past few years, Mark Bottrell has been tracking how many players who have appeared in RBI Baseball (from 1988) and Tecmo Super Bowl (from 1991) are still active in MLB and the NFL. Sad news this year...only one player is still active.
Yes, per the rules of the game, only five players are eligible to catch a pass during a particular play and seven players have to set up on the line of scrimmage. But in the minds of Bryan and Humphries, you can develop an infinite number of plays with an infinite number of formations.
Talk about confusing a defense.
"It presents a different set of challenges for defenses because they have to account for which guys go out or might go out," Bryan said. "Those guys who are ineligible to go down the field and catch a pass, they can take a reverse pitch or a negative screen or a hitch behind the line of scrimmage.
Ben Fry analyzes the data from an intelligence test administered to all incoming NFL players and displays the results by position. Offensive players do better than defensive players on the test, although running backs score the lowest (wide receivers and cornerbacks also don't do well). As Michael Lewis suggested in The Blind Side, offensive tackles are the smartest players on the field, followed by the centers and then the quarterbacks.
On average, suboptimal play-calling decisions cost each team .85 wins over the course of the season.
In particular, the world champion Giants should have won another game had they called the right plays at the right times. ZEUS also analyzed play calling in "hyper-critical" situations (those fourth-down decisions with five or fewer yards needed for the first down) and found that on average, teams made the wrong calls more than 50% of the time. Here's an interview on the results with the guys behind ZEUS.
Dueling Kickoffs: To begin overtimes, each team will kick off to each other on consecutive plays. The team that advances the ball furthest will have possession at the point on the field where the ball was advanced. Sudden death is preserved.
But if they lose -- especially if they lose late -- the New England Patriots will be the most memorable collection of individuals in the history of pro football. They will prove that nothing in this world is guaranteed, that past returns do not guarantee future results, that failure is what ultimately defines us and that Gisele will probably date a bunch of other dudes in her life, because man is eternally fallible.
He carried with him a little book in which he kept track, day by day, of whether he had lived according to thirteen virtues, including Silence, which he hoped to cultivate "to break a Habit I was getting into of Prattling, Punning and Joking." What made Franklin great was how nobly he strived for perfection; what makes him almost impossibly interesting is how far short he fell of it.
It's also worth noting that, per Aristotle and Shakespeare, the hero in a tragedy always has a fatal flaw; it's what makes him a hero and the story worth listening to.
Who wins the Super Bowl of Food: New York City or Boston? Ed Levine says it's no contest: New York all the way.
What has Boston bestowed upon us, foodwise? Brown bread, baked beans, Boston cream pie, and Parker House rolls. Pretty slim pickins', don't you think? How far would you go out of your way for some baked beans or some brown bread? I'd only go a block or two at the most. Now if you expanded the geographic food purview of the Patriots to all of New England, that might be an interesting discussion, because then New England clam chowder, lobster rolls, and fried clams would enter into the fray.
Ed's a bit hard on Boston here...there's some excellent food to be found in the city and its surrounds.
Oher was named to the all-Southeastern Conference first team after the season and is considered one of the top offensive linemen prospects in the country. He has already shown the promise scouts predicted when he was a homeless 16-year-old who didn't know how to play football.
The NFL, in their infinitesimal wisdom and utilizing their stupid scheduling/blackout policy, has ensured that the best game of the weekend (Steelers vs. Patriots) will not be shown on TV in the New York City area. We get the hapless Jets instead...a team that not even Jets fans care about at this point in their 3-9 season. Our cable provider doesn't carry any NFL stations and we don't really want to trek out to a sports bar with the kiddo. Are there any other options? An illicit online broadcast? Anything?
Update: We ended up watching the game online -- poor quality, dropped frames, and all. Better than braving the rain and sports bar. (thx to everyone who wrote in, especially kunal)
There is still some faint resistance to the notion that a kicker could ever really do anything great. Brett Favre can throw 10 more game-ending interceptions and fans will still cherish his moments of glory. Reggie Bush may fumble away a championship and still end up being known for the best things he ever does. Even offensive linemen whose names no one remembers are permitted to end their days basking in the reflected glory of having been on the field. Kickers alone are required to make their own cases.
Maybe soccer goalies can identify with NFL kickers?
Long audio interview with Michael Lewis by economist Russ Roberts on "the hidden economics of baseball and football". "Michael Lewis talks about the economics of sports -- the financial and decision-making side of baseball and football -- using the insights from his bestselling books on baseball and football: Moneyball and The Blind Side. Along the way he discusses the implications of Moneyball for the movie business and other industries, the peculiar ways that Moneyball influenced the strategies of baseball teams, the corruption of college football, and the challenge and tragedy of kids who live on the streets with little education or prospects for success."
In addition to the race and class aspect that interests me about the book, The Blind Side is, oh, by the way, also about the sport of football, specifically the left tackle position. In the 1980s, the quarterback became increasingly important in the offensive scheme and rushing linebackers, specifically Lawrence Taylor, became a bigger part of the defensive scheme. This created a problem for the offensive line: protect the valuable & fragile quarterback from the huge, fast likes of Lawrence Taylor, whose Joe Theismann-leg-snapping exploits you've seen replayed on a thousand SportsCenters. The solution to this problem was to hire giant-handed men the size of houses who move like ballerinas to protect the blind side of the quarterback. Thus has the left tackle position become the second-highest paid position in the league behind the quarterbacks themselves.
When I read Lewis' profile of Michael Oher in the New York Times, I had a crazy thought: why not cut to the chase and make the men fit to play the left tackle position into quarterbacks instead? Lewis covers this briefly near the end of the book in relating the story of Jonathan Ogden, left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens:
Now the highest paid player on the field, Ogden was doing his job so well and so effortlessly that he had time to wonder how hard it would be for him to do some of the other less highly paid jobs. At the end of that 2000 season, en route to their Super Bowl victory, the Ravens played in the AFC Championship game. Ogden watched the Ravens' tight end, Shannon Sharpe, catch a pass and run 96 yards for a touchdown. Ravens center Jeff Mitchell told The Sporting News that as Sharpe raced into the end zone, Ogden had turned to him and said, "I could have made that play. If they had thrown that ball to me, I would have done the same thing."
Having sized up the star receivers, Ogden looked around and noticed that the quarterbacks he was protecting were...rather ordinary. Here he was, leaving them all the time in the world to throw the ball, and they still weren't doing it very well. They kept getting fired! Even after they'd won the Super Bowl, the Ravens got rid of their quarterback, Trent Dilfer, and gone looking for a better one. What was wrong with these people? Ogden didn't go so far as to suggest that he should play quarterback, but he came as close as any lineman ever had to the heretical thought.
Many of the left tackles that Lewis talks about in the book can run faster than most quarterbacks, they can throw the ball just as far or farther (as a high school sophomore, Michael Oher could stand at the fifty-yard line and toss footballs through the goalposts), possess great athletic touch and finesse, have the intellect to run an offense, move better than most QBs, know the offense and defense as well as the QB, are taller than the average QB (and therefore has better field vision over the line), and presumably, at 320-360 pounds, are harder to tackle and intimidate than a normal QB. Sounds like a good idea to me.
Variety is reporting that the movie rights for Michael Lewis' The Blind Side have been purchased by Fox. Most of the article is behind a paywall, but here's the relevant bit:
After interest from multiple buyers, which included New Line and Mandalay, the "Blind Side" deal closed for $200,000 against $1.5 million and also includes $250,000 in deferred compensation. Gil Netter will produce for Fox, which did not confirm the value of the deal.
Norton released the book yesterday, but Hollywood interest was sparked when the New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt in its Sept. 24 issue.
Story, which was titled "The Ballad of Big Mike," centered on Michael Oher, a poor, undereducated 344-pound African-American teenager in Memphis, whose father was murdered and whose mother was a crack addict. Oher had been shuffled through the public school system, despite his 0.6 grade point average and missing weeks of classes each year. But his tremendous size and quickness attracted the interest of a wealthy white couple who took him in and groomed him both athletically and academically to become one of the top high school football prospects in the country.
I'm hoping against hope that if the movie ever gets made, the interesting class and racial issues the book raises aren't completely steamrollered out of the story in favor of pure uplifting entertainment. (thx, jen)