Friday, April 27, 2007

Save Your Weekend

Tomorrow is Draft Day for the NFL, the time each year when teams divvy up the college prospects . At this time of year, hope springs eternal, and every team believes that the players they select this weekend will make them better. Unfortunately, history tells us that usually isn't the case.

In one of my football annuals, I wrote an article about how low the ratio of hits to misses was in the first round. Less than half of first round picks become impact players, and while the players taken earliest get the most hype, the success rate for the biggest college stars isn't any better. Columnist Bob Matthews opines that the flop rate for quarterbacks taken number one overall is about 50-50.

Of the 15 QBs chosen No. 1 since 1970, here’s how I categorize them:

Worthy of the No. 1 pick (7) — Terry Bradshaw by Pittsburgh in 1970; Jim Plunkett by New England in 1971 (won two Super Bowls with the Raiders); John Elway by Denver in 1983; Troy Aikman by Dallas 1989; Drew Bledsoe by New England 1993 (I’m in a pro-Drew mood today; No. 8 pick OT William Roaf and No. 10 pick RB Jerome Bettis had more productive careers, but Bledsoe gets the benefit of the doubt for being a QB); Peyton Manning by Indianapolis in 1998; Carson Palmer by Cincinnati in 2003.

Not worthy of the No. 1 pick (6):

  • Steve Bartkowski by Atlanta in 1975 (Dallas took DT Randy White No. 2; Chicago took RB Walter Payton No. 4).
  • Vinny Testaverde by Tampa Bay in 1987 (not a great first round, but Indianapolis took LB Cornelius Bennett No. 2; Pittsburgh took DB Rod Woodson No. 10).
  • Jeff George by Indianapolis in 1990 (San Diego took LB Junior Seau No. 10; Dallas took RB Emmitt Smith No. 17).
  • Tim Couch by Cleveland in 1999 (the Browns would’ve been better off taking a recliner or a waterbed; Philadelphia took QB Donovan McNabb No. 2, St. Louis took WR Torry Holt No. 6, Washington took CB Champ Bailey No. 7).
  • Michael Vick by Atlanta in 2001 (I guess Vick still could justify the selection, but San Diego took RB LaDainian Tomlinson No. 5, New England took DT Richard Seymour No. 6, Seattle took OG Steve Hutchinson No. 17).
  • David Carr by Houston in 2002 (I haven’t written him off but the Texans did; Carolina took DE Julius Peppers No. 2; Cincinnati took OT Levi Jones No. 10; Indianapolis took DE Dwight Freeney No. 11, Baltimore took safety Ed Reed No. 24).
Too early to tell (2) — Eli Manning by San Diego (traded to New York Giants) in 2004; Alex Smith by San Francisco in 2005.

Judging the success of a pick based on the players that went afterwards doesn't make any sense, because you can always find a later pick that surprised everyone. But Matthews has the quarterbacks sorted pretty well, and for every reader that wants to argue that we should consider Michael Vick a good pick, I can find someone who says that Bledsoe belongs on the list of busts.

The point is that the hype surrounding the draft far exceeds reality. All you have to do is look back at past drafts to see that. Each class yields about 8-10 impact players, guys who become starters for a long enough stretch to be considered Pro Bowl candidates. Go back ten years and you'll see what I mean. The first round of the 1997 draft class included just four stars, by my count, tackles Orlando Pace & Walter Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and running back Warrick Dunn. There are another 8-10 guys who became decent starters for a while, like WR Ike Hilliard and RB Antowain Smith. But there were also some monumental busts, like QB Jim Druckenmiller, whose career consisted of six games, and WR Rae Carruth, who was serving an 18-24 year sentence for the murder of his girlfriend. Pick any year, and you'll see that it's always the same.

Yet the NFL's marketing gurus have been successful in turning the draft into a huge event. Hundreds of fans show up to watch the event in person, an experience slightly more monotonous than sitting in an airport all day. At the newsstand this year I saw eight different draft preview magazines. When the Sporting News first came out with theirs four years ago, I couldn't imagine their were enough people interested yo justify the printing cost. I'm astonished that there are now eight. I love football, I write about it for a living, but this is ridiculous.

ESPN's wall-to-wall television coverage is a perfect illustration of how the media has failed us in the information age. Hour after hour, the talking heads will yammer on and on, analyzing past picks and speculating on future picks. In the end, they have nothing to say, no insight to impart, and nothing valuable to add to the process.

Unless you think you might be one of the players selected, please don't waste your time. The recap in Monday's paper will give you all the information without consuming your entire weekend. And even if you are a player expecting to be selected, don't stress yourself. When a team picks you, they'll call.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ebert: I Ain't A Pretty Boy No More

Last March, I had a chance to meet Roger Ebert when he came to the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. He was presenting the Italian film "Umberto D," answering questions, and autographing copies of his latest book. Ebert is not only the world's best known movie critic, he is the only writer in his field to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work. With fellow critic Gene Siskel, he created the concept of rating films with a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

Three months after his appearance here, Ebert had surgery for a recurrence of cancer in his salivary gland, and complications from that surgery have kept him sidelined for ten months. He hasn't appeared on his weekly television show, and has written only a handful of reviews for his newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times.

Ebert is poised to reappear tomorrow night when his ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival opens at the University of Illinois. In a piece for his paper today, he wrote about his decision to attend.

I have received a lot of advice that I should not attend the festival. I’m told that paparazzi will take unflattering pictures, people will be unkind, etc.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. As a journalist I can take it as well as dish it out.

So let’s talk turkey. What will I look like? To paraphrase a line from “Raging Bull,” I ain’t a pretty boy no more.

Ebert goes on to describe how the surgery required removing part of his jaw bone, and that a tracheotomy has left him temporarily unable to speak. Ebert does not believe that his altered appearance should make him unwilling to leave the house.

So when I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck, and my mouth will be seen to droop. So it goes.

I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what?

I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.

Ebert's piece is titled, "We Spend Too Much Time Hiding Illness," and he's exactly right. Some people may feel uncomfortable seeing him in less than perfect health, but that shouldn't stop him from doing what he enjoys most. "Why do I want to go? Above all, to see the movies," Ebert explains. "Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while you’re sick. I wouldn’t miss the festival for anything!"

Good for you, Roger.

Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam Killed in Auto Accident

For the second time in two weeks, a writer who made a significant impact on me has died. I just heard on the radio that David Halberstam was killed in an automobile accident this morning in Menlo Park, California. As a reporter with the New York Times, Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting on the Vietnam War. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1972 book "The Best and the Brightest," which examined the decision making process that led the Kennedy administration into that ill-fated war.

Between 1981 and 2005 he published thirteen books, seven of which covered sports subjects. The most notable of them was his 1999 work, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." Halberstam examined the impact that the hoops star had both on and off the court, detailing how Jordan had not only changed the game but invented "the idea of the individual player as a commercial superstar"

Halberstam's sports books used the games as a backdrop against which to examine issues of culture, race, and history. In that respect, his sports books weren't all that different from his books on politics and American history. He never argued that the games or the players were important per se, but that they reflected the society in which they took place. Their inherent value had little to do with sport, and in that way, Halberstam helped to provide a new context for examining the players and coaches of our era.

For most Americans, sports exist in a vacuum. You either immerse yourself as a fan, or they don't register on your radar. Halberstam was able to speak to both audiences in a meaningful and entertaining way.

I think my favorite was "The Teammates," his next to last book. It told the story of how three friends went to visit a fourth friend who was dying. All of the men were in their early 80s, and the 1,300 mile drive from Massachusetts to Florida gave each a chance to reminisce about their lives together and apart. The dying man was Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, and the three friends were his teammates with the Boston Red Sox, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr. Even if you didn't know who those four men were, it doesn't matter. The story is less about baseball than friendship.

That was the secret to Halberstam's success as a writer, I think. He always knew what the real story was.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

I woke this morning to the news that Kurt Vonnegut has died at the age of 84. I first discovered his novels when I was in junior high school, and like many young people, I felt as if his message spoke directly to me.

His most well known book was Slaughterhouse Five, whose most memorable line was never far from my mind. The story begins with aging optometrist Billy Pilgrim at his typewriter, writing a letter to the editor of his local paper. "I have become unstuck in time," he writes.

Slaughterhouse Five has been classified as science fiction because on the surface the story is about time travel. Pilgrim keeps bouncing back in forth between events in his life, mostly between his current suburban life and his time with the Army as teenager during the last months of World War Two. It is Vonnegut's story, and the time travel is simply a metaphor for his reflections on his life. As he travels back in his mind to tell us what it was like to witness the firebombing of Dresden, he finds a story much different than what we (or he) expected.

Vonnegut was a pessimist, discouraged by human behavior which seemed bent on destruction and obsessed with minutia. It's no wonder that his work speaks so strongly to disaffected adolescents. I absolutely hated having to read Charles Dickens and William Faulkner in high school. There was nothing in Victorian England or the rural south that spoke to me, that expressed any truths about my own human experience. And Dickens was so long winded. Vonnegut wrote in a short, breezy style. His book Cat's Cradle consisted of dozens of short chapters, some just a paragraph long. It was almost like a stream of consciousness, and reading his prose was like having a conversation.

It had been ten years since Vonnegut's last novel was published, and although he repeatedly insisted that he was retired, he continued to write. A collection of his political commentaries was published in 2005, and while I can't say I always agreed with him, it was a treat to have them... like one last letter from a dying friend. Thanks for everything, Kurt.

Here's a selection of links on Vonnegut and his works.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Imus is Retarded

Radio host Don Imus is coming under increasing fire for comments he made last week about members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. The day after the team lost in the NCAA championship game, Imus commented on their tattoos and called them "rough girls," and later called them "nappy headed ho's."

For the record, I watched that game and none of the Rutgers girls sported any visible tattoos. That may seem like the most trivial point, but it is important. Imus was not responding to something he saw on a video highlight, he was spouting his preconceived conclusions about female athletes. Women can't play sports and be feminine, and those who try should be ridiculed.

It's been a recurring theme on the Imus show. His sidekick Sid Rosenberg called the U.S. women's soccer team "juiced-up dykes." He also said that he can't watch tennis players Venus and Serena Williams because they are too masculine. Rosenberg called Venus Williams an "animal" and said the sisters are more likely to be featured in National Geographic than Playboy.

This kind of misogyny isn't unique to the Imus show. Popular sports talk host Jim Rome constantly refers to players in the WNBA as "horses," and makes derogatory comments about women golfers and other female athletes. While Rome seems to be more progressive than his peers on the issue of gay male athletes, he has been much less tolerant of lesbians in sports.

Imus responded this week with a half-hearted apology as he fought for his job. He insisted that he wasn't a racist and pointed to his philanthropic efforts as a reason why he should keep his job. He's a shock jock after all -- he invented the genre -- so the fact that he said something offensive shouldn't surprise anybody. It's what he gets paid to do.

But for more than a decade, he's tried to mix the obnoxious humor with serious political commentary. All of the top journalists, from Thomas Friedman to Tom Brokaw, appear on his show, and any politician who wants a national stage makes a visit. But Imus can't have it both ways. He can't ask to be taken seriously when discussing the war in Iraq or autism research while he and his merry band do sophomoric comedy bits.

And while Imus claims that his latest gaffe was simply a failed attempt at humor, it was an accurate reflection of the views he has expressed time and time again: that women have no place in the world of sports. That's a view that should have been discarded twenty years ago. It's out of place in our society, and since that is how he feels, Imus has no place in the mainstream media. His views are retarded, in every sense of the word.

That's the problem in my mind. Not that Imus made comments that were racist and sexist, but that he thought it was funny -- that it was his job -- to belittle and demean 18 and 19-year old women at their moment of glory.

I love the fact that women have an opportunity to play sports in this generation. Girls sports weren't taken seriously when I was growing up, and I've come to learn what a remarkable loss that was for them. Young people can learn important lessons from sports, about teamwork and dealing with adversity and accepting defeat. I'm thrilled that my daughters get to grow up in a time when they can compete in athletics, and I look forward to a day we no longer have to listen to old men questioning their sexuality because they want to play.