Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup Soccer

We're well into the Knockout Round of 16, so it's high time for some lasting impressions:

1. The Vuvuzelas are a Plague: With all due respect to my esteemed colleague Stan Bunger, who thinks the incessant and mindless blowing of these cheap plastic horns represents an infectious musical beat, I think the vuvuzelas are no better, and no worse, than the thundersticks (which Stan hated), most notable at the 2002 World Series between the Giants and the Angels, most notably in Anaheim, where they spread like an infectious narcotic. I covered that World Series, and will never forget the sight (and sound) of Angels fans by the dozens--in my section alone--blowing them throughout the games, without regard to what is happening on the field itself. I heard those damn inflatable sticks in my sleep for several nights after the Series was over. And, again, let's not forget the similarities between the thundersticks and the vuvuzelas:

a. They have nothing to do with the games themselves, unlike spontaneous cheers, and even organized cheers (which the English do better than anyone). They are banged together (thundersticks) and blown individually (vuvuzelas) constantly, and mindlessly. It is no wonder the athletes themselves hate them, much as they hate the wave, because all three represent noise which, rather than reflect what is happening on the field, instead interferes with what is happening on the field. They are distracting. They are annoying.

b. They keep the true fan at the game, and the fan watching on TV or listening to the radio, from hearing the natural sounds of the game--the crack of the bat against the ball in baseball, the kicking of the ball in soccer, (again) the spontaneous cheers of the fans--all of which help contribute to the beautiful ambience of the games themselves.

c. They are defended by those who benefit from the selling of tickets. In 2002, it was Angels' and Giants' management, as well as the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, who defended the thundersticks as harmless. And now, it is the president of FIFA--international soccer's governing body--who defends the vuvuzelas as an integral part of South African culture. Oh, please.

2. Time for FIFA to Join the 21st Century: I said on KCBS at the beginning of the World Cup that it was just a matter of time before a mistaken goal (one that should have counted, but wasn't, or the other way around) decides a match. One that could have been prevented by the use of instant replay. France got into the World Cup, at Ireland's expense, from a goal that should not have counted because of an obvious handball. And yet, the president of FIFA said there was no reason to use instand replay in the World Cup, even just to be certain on controversial goals, or non-goals.

So how long did it take to expose this absurd stance by FIFA? Not long. I've lost count of the incorrect calls on goals, and non-goals. There was the one that should have counted for the U.S. late in its match with Slovenia, that would have meant a 3-2 win instead of a 2-2 tie. There was the one that should have given England a 2-2 tie at the half against Germany, but wasn't counted, even though it bounced between one and two yards inside the goal line. The crazy thing is this: Even if FIFA wants to subbornly refuse to include instant replay, it could still station additional assistant referees at the goal line, and behind the goal, to ensure that the proper call is made on goals and non-goals. Instead, what we have is a collective chorus of complaints about the quality of the referees, and it's unfair to blame them.

Any licensed referee who has ever officiated a soccer game (myself included) will tell you that it is impossible to see everything that takes place on the field, and yet there is still only one referee, i.e., a center referee, on the actual field of play for every World Cup match, all the way down to every U12 Youth Soccer match, which is where teams begin playing 11v11, rather than 8v8 (U10). Yes, there are two assistant referees patrolling the sidelines, mainly to call directional throw-ins, and off-sides, but why not have two center referees, one patrolling each side of the field? The games would be easier to officiate.

But back to the stubborn refusal to incorporate instant replay. Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL all use it, in various capacities. What all four sports have in common, along with soccer, is that millions watching at home can see when the incorrect call is made. It's unfair to the umpires and the referees to refuse to utilize instant replay. You think baseball umpire Jim Joyce would have appreciated the use of instant replay when he cost Detroit's Armando Gallaraga a perfect game? Of course he would have. Instead, he has to live the rest of his life knowing he cost Gallaraga the rarest and most treasured feat a pitcher can achieve. Yes, he made the wrong call. But he shouldn't have to live with it forever. We have the technology available to correct such monumental mistakes.

3. The Dives and Fake Injuries are a Disgrace: Anyone who has watched even one or two games of the Cup knows what I am talking about. This is an embarrassing part of the men's game that has never been adequately addressed. Whether it's a guy tumbling to the ground when the opposing player hasn't even made contact with him, or a guy going to the ground and then grabbing his knee in a show of absolute agony, worthy of an Academy Award, it represents a disgraceful part of the game that has become accepted by far too many soccer officials, players and fans. To FIFA's credit, its referees are now encouraged to issue yellow cards to those they deem guilty of such acts, but again, this puts the referee in an impossible situation. How does he know for certain that the guy is acting, when he's seeing the play in real time? In most cases, he's guessing. Case in point: Brazilian superstar Kaka was forced to miss his nation's third game, because of a second yellow card issued in its second game, when an Ivory Coast player took a dive, faked an injury and effectively sold it to the referee. Can anyone tell me that this is not disgraceful and embarrassing?

Some national teams are far more guilty of this than others. If you watch international soccer enough, you'll know which teams I'm talking about. The Asian countries are consistently the ones who don't include this nonsense as part of their strategy. Kudos to them. I hope Japan goes a long way, given that Japan is the only Asian team left in the competition. I also hope Ghana goes a long way, because Ghana is the only African team remaining, and this tournament is, after all, being played on African soil. No African nation has ever won the World Cup. This would be a fabulous time for it to happen.

So, what to do about the dives and the phony injuries, since it's obvious that allowing referees to penalize those guilty of such acts won't begin to put a serious dent in the problem? OK, this is where we get back to instant replay. Isn't that where we see the problem first-hand? Yes, we see it when replays are shown. Just today, I saw a Chilean player go down, and hold his knee in agony. He got a foul called on the Brazilian player, albeit not a yellow card. But the replay showed that the Chilean player wasn't even touched. He took a dive in between two Brazilians, grabbed his knee in agony, got up from the ground a few seconds later, and continued playing. How shameful. He deserved to go home after that pitiful show.

Yes, instant replay could be used to correct this problem, or at least go a long way toward correcting it. Right now, there's no incentive for players (and national teams) to stop the acting, because they know they can get away with it, if they sell it convincingly. However, if soccer's governing bodies, from FIFA all the way to MLS, could review tapes of games, and issue suspensions and fines to those deemed guilty of such fraudulent behavior, then I think we might see a significant change in this absurd practice. It's certainly worth a shot.

Finally, I can't let this subject go without pointing out that the dives and the fake injuries are unique to the men's game only. Chances are that you will never see it in the women's game. It's not part of the culture of women's soccer. Kudos to women's soccer for that.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hey, Chris: Shut the Door on Your Way Out!

As I write, the Warriors have the third worst record in the NBA, at 19-51. A winning percentage of .271, which is horrible, and yet not much worse than the team's .366 percentage over these last 16 seasons combined. The 16 seasons, of course, is what Chris Cohan has to show for his legacy as the Warriors' owner, including one memorable playoff appearance. One playoff appearance in 16 years. Do you realize how hard it is to miss out on the playoffs in the NBA 15 of 16 years? More than half the teams (16 of 30) make the playoffs, The Warriors' one playoff appearance in 16 seasons is fewer than any other team in the NBA.

These abyssmal numbers are worth noting because Cohan yesterday announced that the team is for sale. Finally. He has ignored overtures in the past from those interested in buying, but no longer. The Chronicle notes that Cohan's cash flow is not what it should be, that the IRS nailed him for more than $160 million in back taxes&penalties three years ago.

Cohan was a minority owner of the Warriors until he sued the previous ownership tandem of Dan Finnane and Jim Fitzgerald to gain control of the franchise, prior to the start of the 1994-95 season. For the players, and the fans, he could not have picked a worse time.

The Warriors had just completed an exciting and successful 50-32 season, led in part by the NBA Rookie of the Year, the charismatic Chris Webber. The head coach, Don Nelson, couldn't get along with Webber, who was a proud young man, but hardly unreasonable. Webber simply did not like being publicly ridiculed by Nelson, who had a penchant for doing just that to rookies, who typically took the abuse without complaint, which Webber failed to do.

Nelson was so inflexible on this point that he completely ignored the wise words from trusted colleagues Al Attles and Ed Gregory, among others, who advised him strongly to sit down with Webber, and work out their differences together for the good of the franchise, which was on the verge of becoming a legit NBA power. Instead, Nelson traded his Franchise Player, and that set the team on a downward spiral, out of control, that continues to this day. Webber, meantime, re-surfaced in Sacramento, and led the Kings to a glorious run of success, nearly making the NBA Finals, before losing to the Lakers in overtime of game seven of the Western Conference Finals.

Cohan, although he has never admitted it publicly, allowed Nelson to make the Webber trade, because he didn't have the balls to stand up to him and say no, which Finnane and Fitzgerald surely would have done. They would have said, "Nellie, sit down with Chris, and work this out, or you're gone!" Cohan was a wimp. He failed to understand how critical Webber was to the Warriors long-term success. And yet, a few years later, during an interview with Robert Bronstein on KICU-TV, Cohan claimed that he had no role whatsoever in the Webber trade, that he took over the team after Webber was dealt. That's an outright lie. Cohan precided over the news conference, announcing the trade. He sat with Nelson. He opened the news conference. He occasionally interrupted reporters' questions (including my own), in an absolutely pitiful attempt to defend the deal. And then, with Bronstein, he claimed to have had no role. Pathetic.

Since then, he has hired the wrong people, fired the wrong people, and become such a recluse that he actually ran away from then-Chronicle columnist CW Nevius, who tried to interview him years ago when the NBA All-Star game came to Oakland. He also got booed by his own home fans, when introduced during a halftime on-court ceremony. It might have seemed a bit cruel to some, at the time, but really, who can blame the fans? They have paid countless dollars to support this team over the years, and all they want is competent ownership, and a consistently competitive team. For the last 16 years, they haven't had any of the former, and very little of the latter.

So, who's going to buy the Warriors? Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has made no secret of his interest. He can certainly afford it. He does not like losing. He is obviously far more likely than Cohan ever was to put the proper people in place to run this organization like it should be run. So, here's hoping he can pull off the purchase. Or, if not him, somebody else with the financial resources and smarts to put this franchise back on the road to success, where it was when Cohan took it over 16 years ago, and where it has rarely traveled since.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NBC's Abyssmal Olympic Coverage

I thought I was fully prepared for NBC's totally embarrassing coverage of the Vancouver Olympic Games. I know Dick Ebersol does not regard the Olympics as anything resembling a sports competition. I know that because I read well before the Games opened last weekend that the president of NBC Sports regards the Olympics as a collection of feel-good stories, and that's why he's completely comfortable with foregoing live coverage of nearly all of the major events, in order to package them as network story-telling during NBC's prime time programming.

That's bad enough, for those of us who actually want to watch the Olympics live, as we are accustomed to watching baseball, football, basketball, tennis, soccer and any other sporting competition you can possibly think of. Would you settle for being deprived of the abilty to watch the Super Bowl or the World Series live? Of course not. And yet Ebersol has compounded the problem for those of us on the west coast, by not only saving and abbbreviating all the major events for prime time coverage, but delaying the Pacific time coverage another three hours. So, while viewers on the east coast saw the conclusion of the pairs figure skating last night at 9pm, we on the west coast didn't see it until midnight. If we were still awake, which few of us were. So, what exactly is NBC's point here, besides trying to make as much money as possible, at the expense of anything resembling integrity?

Well, one objective, apparently, is to confuse the hell out of us. On Saturday, the opening day of the Games, I was at my local health club, burning calories on a cross-trainer at 6pm, while watching NBC. The highly-respected Bob Costas was telling me that NBC would be showing the electrifying short-track speedskating at 8pm eastern time. Yes, that's right. Costas was telling me that I could watch the short-track speedskating at 8pm eastern (5pm Pacific), and he was telling me this at 6pm Pacific. You think Costas is happy about NBC's coverage? I'm guessing he is appalled as I am.

The Games opened Saturday morning at 9, following the opening ceremonies on Friday night. For those under the illusion that NBC might actually use its member networks to offer the Games live for those of us who actually wanted to watch the Games live, this is what you saw, if you tuned in: While NBC was showing the cartoon Three-Two-One Penguin, CNBC was airing Sexy Body Secrets, MSNBC was showing Hooked: Muscle Women, and USA was airing Psych.

On President's Day, the Men's Downhill began at 10:30 Pacific time. But nowhere on your Cable or Direct TV channel lineup was the Men's Downhill to be found. It's as though it weren't happening at all. The Downhill is the most exciting of all the Alpine ski events. Surely, millions would love to have been able to watch the entire two hours of the Downhill. But, thanks to NBC, the Downhill was reduced to about 20 minutes of taped coverage, nearly a half-day later. More than 60 skiers competed. We saw no more than six. It's beyond absurd.

Surely, Ebersol could air live coverage of the Games on these NBC cable networks, while saving the packaged story-telling for prime time, on NBC. That way, every viewer would be satisfied--those of us who would love to be able to watch the Olympics live, day and night, and those who don't have such an intense interest in the Games, but still love to catch the highlights, the stories, etc., in prime time. It seems so simple. Put another way: Why is the U.S. the only advanced nation in the world that televises the Olympic Games every two years as though it's a soap opera, designed for viewers who want their Games taped, delayed and on prime time only? Canada doesn't do this, even when the Games aren't originating in Canada!

Ebersol must think it's the Innsbruck Games of 1964 when NBC, ABC and CBS controlled all the commercial airwaves. Instead it's 2010, and NBC should be streaming live coverage of the Vancouver Games all day long.

The fact that NBC is not only NOT televising the major Olympic events live, but is preventing any other entity from showing it live, is unconscionable.

Can't the IOC do anthing about this? Ebersol should be publicly flogged for this. Well, at least figuratively.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mark McGwire

Add me to the long list of those who were thoroughly unimpressed by Mark McGwire's public confession two weeks ago, that he used anabolic steroids during a decade-long period that culminated with him breaking the single-season major league homerun record with 70, in 1998.

If McGwire felt liberated by finally speaking out publicly on his long history of steroid use, then I am genuinely happy for him. He is probably sleeping better at night, and as one who has had difficulty sleeping through rough periods in my personal life, I applaud him for coming clean. Except that he failed miserably on the one crucial point, when he insisted that the many years of using a variety of PEDs did not, in fact, enhance his performance.

It's common knowledge now that Big Mac hired former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, now the head man of Fleischer Sports Communications, to guide him through his coming out, of sorts. But if Fleischer advised Mac to say that steroids didn't help hit a baseball, then I think he did a great disservice to his new client. Rather, I think Mac would have been much better served, when asked by Bob Costas on the MLB Network about the benefits of steroids, to say that he didn't know for sure, but that even if 'roids did help hit more home runs, it was impossible to say how many more. Such an answer, I believe, would have been much more credible, and would have served him much better in the long run in the court of public opinion, including with the baseball Hall of Fame voters.

Speaking of the HOF, I was not surprised to see McGwire down around 24% of the vote (far short of the minimum 75% necessary from the baseball writers), but I was very disappointed to see that fellow first-baseman Fred McGriff, in his first year of eligibility, garnered just 21%.

To me, just as a vote against McGwire (and a vote against Bonds three years from now) is a vote against obvious and long periods of heavy steroid use, a vote for McGriff would be a vote in favor of those who put up excellent numbers, albeit numbers overshadowed by steroid users during a steroid era. In other words, you'd have to be an extreme cynic to believe that McGriff used 'roids. He was long&lean as a rookie in the Big Leagues, and he was long&lean when he retired. His body never changed. He hit 493 homeruns, with an average of .284, a solid glove, and a clutch performer, as Giants fans will attest to, particularly from the 1993 season, when the Giants won 103 games, only to finish second in the NL West to the Braves, who won 104, led in large part by McGriff, who hit .310 with 19 homers and 55 RBIs in 290 at-bat, after being acquired in a mid-season trade from San Diego.

In short, a vote against McGwire is a vote against those who cheated the game, and the fans. A vote for McGriff doubles that sentiment.

Brett Favre

Beware of that story, saying Brett Favre told Ed Werder that he was leaning heavily toward retirement. To me, it's either a non-story completely, or if one does report it, one must also add that it's a completely natural reaction immediately after (or even a day after) such a grueling and discouraging loss. In other words, the fact that he said he was leaning heavily toward retirement last night or this morning means absolutely nothing in the long run.

It's unfortunate that stories like this have life in them, because not only is it as exhausting as watching CSN report every freaking night from Raiders headquarters on the Tom Cable situation, when there is nothing to report, but it also fuels this anti-Favre fever across the country. Fans get angry, again, because they think Favre is indecisive, and is leading them on. When, in reality, all he did was say how he felt at that moment, and ESPN rides with it. Ideally, he should say, "Ed, this is not a good time to ask me that question, because I'm emotional and I'm exhausted, mentally and physically." That kind of answer would serve him much better.

But we all know these speculative Favre stories (will he retire or won't he?) will be reported on the Worldwide Leader in Sports nearly every day until he decides whether to play another season. And, in the process, fans will grow increasingly tired of him, when in reality, they should re-examine who's really at fault here. Favre needs time to decide whether he wants to quarterback the Vikings again, at age 41. Almost to a man, his teammates would love to see him come back, and why not? He's a great team leader, and he had one of the best seasons of his career, with 33 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Yes, the media should back off and give him time.