Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The American Relevance of the Italian Soccer Scandal

The Italian soccer scandal is one of the worst in sports history. A match-fixing scandal spanning the last two years among some of Italy and Europe’s most powerful teams is serious. Four teams in Italy’s first disivion, Serie A face an array of sanctions. AC Milan stays in Serie A, but begins the year with a -15 point penalty, basically starting the season with five losses. . Juventus, Fiorentina, and Lazio will all be relegated to Serie B. Juventus also received a -30 point penalty, the equivalent of losing ten games. All four teams also forfeit their spots in the European Championship tournaments.

To put this into proper perspective for us Yanks, consider men’s college basketball for a hypothetical illustration. Big East powerhouses UConn, Syracuse and Cincinnati all are sent to Division II. Another powerhouse Villanova remains in the Big East, but forfeits 16% of its games. All four teams are also ineligible for the Big East tournament, NCAA tournament, and the preseason NIT and Maui Invitational tourneys. Since these teams are all assured of miserable years, players must also be granted their releases. UConn also essentially forfeits 26% of their games. It would essentially mean the Death Penalty handed to SMU in the 80’s.

Considering the cascading effects of the penalties, the four teams will suffer serious financial problems. There is a reasonable chance that Juventus, one of the most successful soccer clubs in the world, could go bankrupt.

Like many other sports scandals, the Italian fiasco is tied to gambling and money. It is not impossible to imagine a similar incident occurring in the US. Sports betting is a multi-billion dollar industry. There have been several point-shaving scandals in college basketball, and plenty of other rule-bending league-wide sports embarrassments.

Bet on Sports CEO David Caruthers was arrested last weekend for racketeering charges. While the arrest has no implications to any sports affiliations, it is an clear reminder of how prevalent gambling is in sports. It is a logical step that someone motivated by money would have an interest in fixing games in the US. Simply put, it’s a legitimate threat to any college and professional league. Just as Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti are obviously not the only steroid users in baseball, the same can reasonably said of Pete Rose and gambling.

What’s the solution? Each league office -not the government- must be responsible and honest about potential issues. This means the gamut of gambling, point shaving, performance drugs, recruiting scandals and whatever other schemes unscrupulous people invent. If there is evidence of wrong-doing within a sport, swift action must be taken.

As the world will see, Italian soccer is going to suffer dearly for this episode. It's an important precedent because regretfully it will not be the last time.

Friday, July 07, 2006

This week’s sign that ESPN loves themselves too much.

A recent contest on ESPN Radio was to be a call-screener for a day. Sadly, somewhere a sport rube thought this would be a dream gig. The people that entered the contest envisioned something on par with the Sportscenter commercials, where athletes and crazy mascots litter the Bristol campus. Some fan will realize their dream of seeing Colin Cowherd arrive to the station five minutes prior to airtime in sweatpants. Maybe ESPN radio is different, but I worked for three years in sports radio, and call screening is very far from glamorous, let alone contest-worthy. Having three years of call screening in sports radio, it’s not very exciting. It pays seven dollars an hour. A sweepstakes to clean the halls of the Bristol campus is more lucrative and equally exciting. Maybe some fans think answering the rubeline is exciting. If placing Dave on a Cell phone, or Lakers fan in Kansas on hold is exhilarating, then you missed your big chance.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Players I wouldn’t touch with an NBA-sized pole

Every year teams overpay for players. In a dreadfully weak free agent class, overpaying is even more rampant. You can’t fault players for taking what teams are willing to pay. Every year teams do the same tired act of signing underachieving and overrated players to large contracts, and then act surprised when they don’t pan out. Here are four situations that a smart GM would avoid at all costs. Of course if all GM’s were smart, the Knicks might be in better shape. (And Jerome James would be out the NBA.)

-The Bulls needed a scoring big man. Their solution? Sign Ben Wallace for four years and $60million. Ben Wallace brings a lot to the table, offense is not one of them. He can't shoot, save for dunks and layups. His career high scoring average is 9.7. The Bulls incumbant center, Tyson Chandler, is apparently gone. Exchanging Wallace for Chandler nets the Bulls about 2 rebounds and 1 block per game at the expense of an older player with less offensive skill. Wallace plays hard and is an excellent defender. The problem is he is getting franchise player money, and he is not a franchise player. Further, Wallace is 31 and might become more susceptible to injuries throughout the contract.

-Nene played one game last year because of a knee injury. His reward? A 6-year $60million contract from Denver. The Nuggets also locked up Carmelo Anthony for $80million. Considering that Marcus Camby is also paid $8million a year until 2010, the Nuggets have a very expensive front court. Kenyon Martin, signed to a max deal two years ago, and is good as gone. Until Martin is traded, the Nuggets have over $40million per year invested in their frontcourt. Even trading Martin doesn’t totally solve the problem. Trading Martin means accepting players with matching salaries. An easier, cheaper solution was not overpaying for Nene. Too late now. That move just reduced Denver’s slim Championship window by two or three years.

-The Clippers didn’t overpay for Sam Cassell, but the effects may be just as bad. Cassell was a large key in the Clipper’s playoff run last year. His 2006 season had several similarities to his 2004 season with Minnesota: Traded to a new team after wearing out his welcome, playing for his next contract, and leading his new team to greater success. But Minnesota fans also remember the 2005 season as well. That year Cassell was disruptive, injured and looked very old as a player. As well as Cassell played this past year, his.443 FG% was the lowest in eight years. It doesn’t bode well for a 38 year-old point guard that relies almost solely on his jumper for points. Aside from an inevitable slip in Cassell’s number, the Clippers also have a budding point guard in Shaun Livingston. Will Cassell be willing to be a reserve in favor of Livingston? If Cassell starts for the next two years, Livingston’s progress is severely stunted.

-Mention Bonzi Wells in Portland or Memphis and people’s moods turn sour. Wells was probably the least popular member of the Blazers in the early 00’s, no small feat on a team with Rasheed Wallace, Ruben Patterson, and Qyntel Woods among others. After beginning his career as a potential 20 points per game scorer, he is now cemented as a 12-13 ppg guy. Wells doesn’t get arrested or meet legal challenges. He is simply a lousy teammate. He has spit on players, flipped off fans, berated coaches and overall shown a complete lack of interest in selflessness. All NBA teams know, or should know his history. Yet some team will still sign him, probably for too much money, hoping he will be an offseason steal. The only thing stolen will be the money headed to Bonzi’s bank account.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hawt Dawg!

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet. They used to be the staples of America. Not any more my flag-waving friend. Japan is the reigning champion of the World Baseball Classic. Toyota is invading NASCAR. Apple pie lost its relevance when McDonald's removed the scalding, hot lava apple pies for "safety concerns". And Takeru Kobayashi is the 5-time Nathan’s Hot Dog eating Champ. A 144-pound Japanese man sticking it to all of Fast Food Nation, and on the 4th of July no less.

Now it’s time for the old US of A to fight back. Enter Joey Chestnut and Sonya Thomas. Chestnut recently ate 50 hot dogs in a Las Vegas qualifier (You can't just be any slob off the street to partake in the fun)-a serious threat to Kobayashi’s record of 53 ½. At only 105lbs, Thomas holds 23 records, including 35 brats in ten minutes, and 7.75 pounds of turducken in 12 minutes. Somewhere John Madden is jealous.

Forget the World Cup, Tour De France or baseball, the real athletic battle will take place tomorrow in Coney Island, NY. Our country’s gluttonous pride is on the line.

Go Away All Star Game Whining

For many columnists, the day after All-Star selections is a good day to mail it in. In a way it makes sense: the Monday before July 4th is perfect for using a carbon copy article that you can Blackberry to your editor from the lake cabin or beach house. How else to explain the same generic columns every year. Every year there is outrage about stupid fans, egregious omissions, and the East Coast bias. I counter with Who Cares?

When was the last time people truly cared about the All-Star game? Who watches it? How serious can the selections truly be when fans vote, players vote and a manager gets to choose his own players? Plus every team must have a representative.
Every year there are mistakes and forced errors. This year KC’s Mark Redman and his 5.59 ERA are All-Star material. Sure there are 10-20 players that are better choices than Redman. So what? The people that plan on watching the game will watch whether Mark Redman or Method Man pitches two thirds of the seventh inning. The majority of people planning to watch the game will tune in whether Francisco Liriano or Nelson Liriano is on the AL roster. The larger population doesn't care.

Speaking of larger populations, so what if there are too many Yankees, Red Sox and Mets? There are more people in these cities so of course they will have more votes. It's the same reason why New York has more congressman and more electoral college votes. You can't penalize Yankee fans for loyalty to their guys. At least these teams are successful this year. It would be a bigger shame if the Cubs had 5 or 6 players heading to Pittsburgh.

Getting upset about it does nothing. Writing lame columns or devoting hours on talk radio about snubs and oversights is worse. Considering the awful PR state of baseball in recent years, it’s quite a feat that people care enough to vote.

I see very little wrong with the current setup. Let fans vote the starters, let the players vote the reserves. One tweak is removing the one player for every team requirement. Only the host team automatically gets a player.

As long as fans, the media and players all remember this is an exhibition game with less value than the World Baseball Classic, we're all better off. The greatest mistake is using the All-Star game to affect other events. World Series home field advantage is based on an exhibition with arbitrary rosters. Even worse, writers often cite All-Star appearances as a factor for other awards like the Hall of Fame. This is just wrong. The only honor attached to an All-Star appearance is recognition from your peers or fans for being popular, having a good half-season, or playing in a large city. To equate it to anything else is plain lazy. Much like many of the columns churned out on days like today.