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The Lionel Messi Experiment

If you paid any attention to this year’s World Cup, you might have noticed that various commentators and analysts made the identical curious comment that “some people consider Lionel Messi to not only be the greatest player in the world, but the greatest player of all time”. This came as quite a surprise to most casual fans as it was generally assumed that he was not remotely close to being the best Argentinian player ever, let alone the greatest player in the history of world soccer.

In the knockout round of World Cup, Messi didn’t score a single goal. By contrast, in 1986, Diego Maradona, the actual greatest Argentinian player of all time and the only player who can truly be considered as potentially being as great as Pele, scored two goals against England in a knockout game. Both goals are perhaps the two most famous goals in World Cup history; one for perhaps being the greatest goal ever scored and the other for being scored by punching the ball into the net with his hand.

Despite losing to Germany in the final, and despite not scoring a single goal in the knockout round, and despite Argentina not scoring a single goal in the last two games of the World Cup, Lionel Messi was awarded the Golden Ball trophy as the tournament’s best player. This came as a complete shock to anyone who knows anything about soccer, including Messi himself, who looked like he was being given a pile of manure when he received the trophy.

Some people, including Diego Maradona himself, originally suggested that this was all due to the influence of Adidas, which is a major sponsor of both Messi and FIFA. This week, however, it has come to light that both the Golden Ball award and all of the talk of him being the greatest player ever was all part of an experiment to test the soccer IQ of American sports fans. The United States represents the biggest potential growth market for soccer, and so it was decided to test how knowledgeable of soccer the average American soccer fan was becoming. After the World Cup, 10,000 people across the United States were surveyed about who was the greatest soccer player of all time. Zero out of 10,000 answered Lionel Messi, which showed that Americans have clearly become much more knowledgeable about soccer.

Why LeBron Would Never Play with Kobe

With all of the discussion and analysis about LeBron James’ Decision 2.0, it is difficult to believe that there could be a single angle to the story that has not been completely beaten to death. But there is one interesting aspect that seems to have been completely overlooked by the pundits; the real reason why LeBron James would never consider joining the Lakers while Kobe Bryant is there.

Many respected pundits had floated the Lakers as a potential landing spot for LeBron, both in 2010 and in 2014, but both times LA never became a serious contender. This time around, the Lakers are not even pretending that they have a chance at landing King James and so they have focused their efforts on signing Carmelo Anthony. According to media reports, Kobe Bryant returned from vacation to hang out with Carmelo in LA in an attempt to sell him on the Lakers. If Kobe wanted LeBron to come to LA, all he would have to do is retire.

Much has been made of LeBron’s quest to match Michael Jordan’s 6 NBA Championships. For today’s players, who have little to no knowledge of the NBA before 1980, Jordan is the standard against whom all stars are measured. In any case, Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring records and Bill Russell’s 11 championship rings are so far beyond attainable that player’s might as well pretend they did not exist. LeBron wants to be the best in the post 1980 world and that means winning 6 NBA titles.

If that is so, it could be completely counter-productive to play with Kobe Bryant, who already has 5 titles. If LeBron were to go to LA and win an NBA championship in each of the next two years, he would in the process allow Kobe Bryant to surpass Michael Jordan with 7 NBA championship rings. The same problem actually exists in Miami, albeit to a lesser extent, with Dwayne Wade, who thanks to playing with a younger version of Shaquille O’Neil than LeBron had in Cleveland, currently has one more ring than LeBron. LeBron would no doubt be fine with winning another title or two with Wade, but there is no way he is going to help him match Michael’s total before he does.

I still find it hard to believe that LeBron and Dan Gilbert could patch things up after all of the fallout from The Decision 1.0, but it is worth keeping in mind that in addition to a talented young roster in Cleveland, there is nobody there with more titles than LeBron.

Why The Toronto Maple Leafs Are The Worst Team in Professional Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs hold the curious distinction of being both the worst run yet also one of the richest franchises in all of sports. They have all of the money of the New York Yankees with the competitive performance of the Cleveland Browns.

That they are rich is not a matter for debate; Forbes routinely lists them as the NHL’s most valuable franchise and despite the highest ticket prices in the league, their games have been continuously sold out for several generations. Both the Ontario Teachers Union Pension Plan and scalpers owe their comfortable future retirements to the money making machine that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Though not even the most die-hard Leafs fan would argue that the Leafs have been a great team, many would argue that calling them the worst team in sports would be an exaggeration, and that they are merely one of many not very good teams. They might say that a lot of the negativity directed at the Leafs is a result of jealousy that the Leafs are always on Hockey Night in Canada and receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage. It is no doubt true that much of the negativity directed at the Maple Leafs is purely due to rivalries and jealousies, but if you step back and look at the facts, it is clear that even their critics do not appreciate just how awful this team has been for over a generation.

Great organizations like the Detroit Red Wings generally build their teams by making smart draft picks over time and developing their prospects. Teams that draft well don’t just have a smart GM; they have talented and hard working scouting and minor league coaching staff that follow strategic and methodical system of identifying and developing young talent. While any one pick could turn out to be a bust, in the long run a team with a solid system will outperform. The Toronto Maple Leafs on the other hand have displayed a shocking inability to either draft or develop prospects.

In the last 28 NHL drafts, the Leafs have not drafted and developed a single star with a first round pick. The first round picks by the Leafs in the last 28 NHL drafts have scored a cumulative total of 284 goals for the team. Not a single first round pick in that timeframe scored more than 30 goals for the team. More players have scored less than 20 goals in their Leaf careers than have scored 20 in a season in a Toronto uniform.

In fairness, Toronto traded their first round picks in several of those draft years. One year they traded their pick to New Jersey and they picked Scott Niedermeyer. Another year they traded a pick to Florida and they picked Roberto Luongo. A couple of years they picked a goalie. One of them was Eric Fichaud, who never made the NHL, and the other was Tukka Rask. Rask was then traded to Boston, where he went on to win the Vezina Trophy as the League’s top goaltender.

To put things in perspective, Nik Andropov has more than twice as many career goals (113) as a Leaf than any other player picked in those 28 years. You think that sounds bad? Luke Schenn is in fourth place with 14 career goals. A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a draft board would literally have produced better results than Toronto has managed over the past 28 years.

The reason why the Maple Leafs have been so awful for so long at drafting suggests the team is suffering from some fundamental organizational deficiencies. This is no doubt due to being lulled into complacency from being the only NHL team in a city filled with affluent and rabid hockey fans. Toronto simply never really needed to build a top notch organization, because they knew that they knew no matter how terrible a team they put on the ice they could still continue to raise ticket prices every year and still sell out. As long as the fans keep forking over money to watch an awful hockey team, the Leafs will continue to be an awful organization.

Lebron James – God’s Gift to the Sports Media

LeBron James, in many ways by choice, has spent his basketball career in the shadow of Michael Jordan. After 10 years in the league he is still just a third of the way to matching the Michael’s number of championship rings, while off the court neither he nor anyone else has a chance at matching Air Jordan’s marketing impact, even before LeBron sabotaged his public image with “The Decision”. There is one area though where LeBron James’ impact completely dwarfs that of Michael Jordan, and that is his impact on the sports media landscape.

LeBron has been supplying columnists and sports radio hosts with material since he was a high school player in Akron. The draft lottery selection the year he entered the league was and remains the most anticipated in history. Once he was drafted by his (almost) hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and lead them to an NBA finals shortly thereafter, the “hometown hero” and “Will he surpass Michael” columns practically wrote themselves.

With some athletes, the storylines become stale over time. With Michael Jordan, the story for most of his career was simply about how great he was and how absurdly rich he was. With LeBron, the storylines are always evolving in increasingly controversial ways. After leading the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, the storyline then shifted to whether him sulking or giving up during playoff losses. He refused to shake hands after losing to the Magic one year, and in his last series with the Cavs he pretty much quit playing at the end of a loss to the Celtics and just walked aimlessly around the three point line. The talk radio frenzy that resulted after LeBron waved the white flag against the Celtics seamlessly blended into another even more frenzied discussion about whether he would resign with the Cavaliers or leave town.

One might have thought that the story would have faded once LeBron made his decision, but in a testament to his greatness as a generator of discussion topics for the sports media, LeBron actually did the opposite by having a dedicated television show to announce that he was leaving to play for the Miami Heat. After watching people in Cleveland burn his jerseys and listening to every sports pundit outside of Miami eviscerate him, he doubled down with a huge introductory ceremony in Miami where he promised to win in excess of 7 titles.

Ever since, it seems like all basketball commentary and half of all sports analysis in general have involved LeBron James over the past four years. Now after 4 consecutive trips to the NBA finals, 2 championships, and the most talked about leg cramp in NBA history, LeBron has put himself back on the market again. What was supposed to be one of the most significant drafts in NBA history has been turned into a mere subplot of the where is LeBron going story? At the beginning of the season we were hearing that Andrew Wiggins could be the best prospect since LeBron and how teams were going to tank for the opportunity to draft him. Now he is being mentioned as mere trade bait to help acquire a player LeBron might want to play with.

LeBron James may not match Michael Jordan’s rings or his endorsement money, but he has now cemented his legacy as the most talked and written about athlete of all time. The next time a columnist or talk radio personality takes a swipe at LeBron James, they should remember that he is helping pay their salaries.

LA Kings Have Luckiest Fans in History of Sports

I can’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be a fan of the LA Kings. All my life the teams I cheer for seem to come up just short and have awful breaks. I was rooting for Greg Norman when he collapsed at Augusta. I was rooting for the Spurs last year when their coach took their best rebounder and shot blocker out the game in the dying seconds of game 6 against the heat and watched as the Heat got a rebound and hit a last second three to tie. I was cheering for the Colts when the Saints recovered an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl and Peyton Manning threw a pick six to end the game. When Manning signed with the Broncos, I was rooting for him when the Broncos corner fell down allowing Joe Flacco to complete a game tying Hail Mary. I even rooted for Tony Romo before giving up in disgust.

No lead is ever safe for the team or player I am rooting for. Comeback attempts always seem to fall just short. I am the opposite of an LA Kings fan. I can only wonder what it must feel like to know that your team is never out of any game or series and overtimes are as predicable and inevitable as the seasons. Down 3 games to none? No problem. Down two goals in game seven on the road? Nothing to worry about. It is as if God is somehow making up to LA sports fans for Donald Sterling and the lack of an NFL team.

There is something unfair about the good fortune of the LA Kings fans as they really haven’t done much to deserve it. Despite playing in the second biggest market in North America, and having had all-time greats like Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky, the support for hockey in LA has never been any better than lukewarm. Even the best players on the current team live their lives in relative anonymity in Los Angeles. Vinnie Del Negro is ten times as recognizable to the LA sports fan as Jonathon Quick.

I should point out that the players themselves deserve every bit of their success. The team is made up of talented, gritty players who play hard and carry themselves well. They also have the best and most inadvertently entertaining coach in all of hockey. And despite all of their undeserved good fortune, I do not really resent LA Kings fans. That may be due to the fact that I have never actually met a Kings fan in person, although I assume they exist. I guess we should all be thankful that neither the Canadiens nor Leaf fans have this kind of luck.

Will Wife Beating Ever Be as Taboo as Racism in Professional Sports?

As the recent events surrounding Donald Sterling and Michael Sam have shown, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a bigot in the sports world. Donald Sterling, in a private conversation with his girlfriend, who is enough to be his great-granddaughter, told her he didn’t want her posting pictures of herself with black people on Instagram or taking them to basketball games. In that same secretly recorded conversation he also told her he was ok with her sleeping with black people and that she should admire Magic Johnson.

The nature of racism has changed rather dramatically when the most racist owner in sports doesn’t even use the N-word in private and allows his girlfriend to have sex with black people. When Donald Sterling was born it would have been difficult to find owners who didn’t use the N-word and black players were not even allowed to play for their teams, let alone hang out with their mistresses. Nevertheless, when the Sterling tape broke the sports world erupted. Players were talking about boycotting and the new commissioner, Adam Silver quickly announced a $2.5 million fine and a lifetime ban for Donald Sterling. A clear message was sent that racism and bigotry of any kind would no longer be tolerated in professional sports.

It is not just racism that is taboo in sports these days, but homophobia as well. When Michael Sam, a homosexual black defensive lineman shared a kiss with his white boyfriend on national TV after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The few people that expressed disapproval or made snide remarks faced a loud and immediate backlash. Don Jones, who tweeted “OMG” and “horrible” after seeing the kiss was immediately suspended by the Miami Dolphins and sent to sensitivity training.

In light of all this progress, it is curious that beating up your wife or girlfriend is still considered socially acceptable in the sports world. When Ray Rice was charged with aggravated assault after he was seen on video dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an Atlantic City casino elevator, the silence from fellow players as well as the media was deafening. To my knowledge, there weren’t any fellow football players tweeting out “OMG” or “horrible” after watching Rice dragging his limp fiancé out of that elevator.

Unlike Riley Cooper, who was direct and effusive in his apologies after his ugly N-word filled tirade was caught on video, Rice held a press conference in which he did not directly state what he was sorry for, didn’t bother to apologize to his wife, and then sat there while his wife apologized for her role in incident. The next day his lawyer spoke hypothetically about Rice’s wife punching him repeatedly before he hit her back. Ray Rice gets hit by 280 pound lineman for a living; there is no hypothetical situation that would justify him hitting his fiancé.

The reaction from the sports media establishment, who have been gorging themselves on the Donald Sterling story for a month, has been disturbingly muted. The nuance that was so hard to find in the Donald Sterling coverage has been all over the various takes on the “complex” Ray Rice incident. Michael Wilbon, who spoke out so passionately against Donald Sterling and even against the NFL’s attempts to curb the use of the N-word during games, has displayed no such outrage on this issue, referred to it on Pardon the Interruption as a “domestic issue” and said the NFL doesn’t have to rush into making a decision on punishment.

A huge portion of professional athletes and an increasing number of sports journalists are black males who have personally experienced discrimination and prejudice and no how awful it is. The problem is that since women make up such a small percentage of the people involved in professional sports there is not the same appreciation for the problem of domestic abuse. Perhaps if most athletes and columnists had been beaten up by their spouse at some point they would look at domestic abuse the same way they look at racism.

 

End Finally in Sight for Excruciating NFL Draft Coverage

Our long national nightmare is almost over. After an eternity of analysis, debate, and mock drafts, the NFL draft will come to a merciful end this week. Earlier this year, when cautioning the NFL on the risk of over-exposure, he was speaking of plans to have televised football on more nights of the week, but adding a couple of hours of football on TV every week is nothing compared to the endless draft coverage that has been stuffed down our throats since the Super Bowl. In fact, the media have been talking about this year’s draft since before last year’s draft.

The chatter about this year’s draft actually began almost a year and a half ago when Jadeveon Clowney had a spectacular highlight reel hit on a Michigan running back. Up to that point, few people had ever heard of the sophomore defensive end, but suddenly the sports media began debating whether Clowney should sit out the following year to protect against injury, and if so, would that affect his position as the clear number one overall pick in the draft.

Though Clowney managed only three sacks all year playing mostly against tackles that will never be good enough for the NFL, he received several times more press coverage than any NFL defensive player in 2013. Likewise, Johnny Manziel, the flashy Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M has been the by far the most talked about quarterback in the country. Russell Wilson, the second year NFL quarterback, who actually won the Super Bowl this year, toiled away in relative obscurity compared to Manziel.

Since the Super Bowl, only the NCAA basketball Final Four and the Donald Sterling controversy have managed to provide a few days of relief from the unrelenting speculation of whether the Texans would take Clowney with the number one overall pick and who would end up picking Manziel. It is a great credit to Roger Goddell and the NFL that they have actually managed to make people so obsessively interested in players who may not have that significant an impact on the league next year, even if they do turn out to be good NFL players.

The last time the Houston Texans had the first overall pick was also the last time that a defensive end went number one overall. The Texans surprised some by picking the physically gifted Mario Williams with their first pick ahead of quarterback Vince Young and running back Reggie Bush. In retrospect it is clear that the Texans made the right choice as Vince Young is now struggling to stay in the league as a backup and Reggie Bush, though a solid running back, never became a true impact player. The irony is that even though Williams did turn out to be a top notch defensive end, he didn’t have that big an impact on the Texans. When his contract was up, the Texans didn’t resign him and he joined the Buffalo Bills for 100 million dollars. The Texans defense actually got better and the Bills were the same old Bills with Williams on their roster.

If the NFL ever does begin to suffer from overexposure as Mark Cuban warned, many will likely look back at the 2014 draft coverage as the tipping point. In retrospect, future generations might find it absurd that there was a time when the most famous football players in the country were guys who had never played a single snap in the NFL.

 

 

 

Is Andrew Bynum the Worst Player in NBA History?

On first glance, this may seem like a preposterous question. Andrew Bynum is a physically gifted 7 footer who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win two NBA titles and has made as much as $16 million in a single season to play basketball. Every team in the league carries a number of journeymen who make the league minimum salary and rarely have a chance to step on the court. Even though his career his career has gone downhill in recent years due to a mixture of injuries and questionable work ethic, most people would consider it absurd to call him the worst player of all time.

I should point out that when I call him the worst player of all time, I am not commenting on the totality of his career; I am talking about the post-Lakers version of Andrew Bynum. I do believe that the current version of Andrew Bynum is quite literally the worst player in NBA history, much worse than the scores of players that only managed a brief 10-day contract and never scored more than two baskets in their career. The reason that circa-2014 Andrew Bynum is worse than those players is that while all those Joe Wassisnames never made their teams better, they at least didn’t make them worse. No NBA team could ever say the reason they had a losing season was because of the 12th man on the roster who played 18 minutes over the course of the season. The reason Andrew Bynum can stake a claim as the worst player in league history is that he actually does significant harm to his team.

After the Lakers exercises a $16 million dollar option on Bynum in 2012, they were then part of a multi-team trade in which the 76ers gave up their star player Andrew Iguodala in exchange for Bynum. Despite being on the hook for Bynum’s $16 million salary, knee injuries prevented him from playing a single game for the 76ers, and the team went into a tailspin the culminated with the longest losing streak in NBA history this year.

Bynum signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers this past off season, but only managed to make it as far as December before being suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. It is difficult to imagine anything as humiliating for a supposedly star basketball player than getting kicked off the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Up to this point, Bynum had only ever damaged a team by causing them to trade away star players for him or for chewing up millions of dollars in money and cap space without contributing on the court. But when the Indiana Pacers signed him February, he lowered his game to a whole other level.

The Pacers didn’t trade anyone for Bynum and they didn’t sign him for a lot of money by NBA standards. After they signed him, he only played in two games before going on the injured list with a sore knee. Despite only nominally being a member of the Pacers, Bynum’s aura of awfulness seems to have somehow magically destroyed what was once one of the favourites to win the NBA title.

Some may argue that Rudy Gay may rival Bynum in that every team that gets rid of him seems to experience a remarkable improvement in performance. That is certainly true, but Rudy Gay has never actually managed to truly set a successful franchise back several years, and whatever harm he does, he at least does it on the court. It is Andrew Bynum’s ability to wreck a team without even playing for them that secures his position as the worst player of all time.

Golf Needs Jordan Spieth to Win the Masters

When Tiger Woods announced that he would not be playing in the Masters this year, the price of tickets to the tournament immediately dropped by 20%. Throughout his career, even during his struggles in recent years, television ratings for all golf tournaments plummet when Tiger is not in the field. For all the talk in recent years about all the up and coming young golfers, Rory McIlroy has been the only one to show a glimmer of potential to become a true superstar, but his career has been in reverse since he signed his massive endorsement deal with Nike.

Much has been made of Tiger not having won a major since 2008, but only McIlroy and Phil Mickelson have won more than one over that stretch. For most of the majors since Tiger’s playoff victory at Torrey Pines we have seen a steady stream of little known first time winners, most of whom have been more likely to miss cuts than contend for another major. When was the last time anyone has seen Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, or Darren Clarke on television on a Sunday of a major? Even most of the next big thing 20-somethings have already started to fizzle before hitting 30. Anthony Kim may or may not still be a professional golfer. Dustin Johnson’s girlfriend get more coverage in Golf Digest than he does these days.

As if it weren’t bad enough that injuries were keeping Tiger out of action, the only other golfer who can truly drive TV ratings, Phil Mickelson, who is approaching his mid-forties and is battling arthritis, missed the cut for the first time in 1997. With the prospect of its two biggest draws nearing the twilight of their careers, golf is crying out for a new superstar to capture the public’s attention. How lucky would the PGA be if the very same year Tiger misses his first Masters someone takes his record as the youngest Masters winner ever?

Even if Spieth turns out to be a flash in the pan or only ends up with an average pro career, it would at least generate some buzz for the remainder of the year and give Tiger’s back a chance to heal and for Rory to get used to his Nike clubs. Fortune seems like it may be smiling on the PGA, as two journeymen vying for the lead, John Senden and Thomas Bjorn, fell back from contention on Saturday, while Bubba Watson retained a share of the lead and Ricky Fowler surged up the leaderboard. While Bubba or Ricky putting on a green jacket would be a much better outcome than most of the major winners in recent years, nothing would compare to a 20 year old putting on a green jacket on Sunday.

Northwestern Ruling Could Be End of an Era for College Sports

My initial reaction to the court ruling granting (subject to a lengthy appeal process) Northwestern college athletes the right to unionize was one of thankfulness that I don’t watch college sports. Whatever you think of college sports or the Northwest ruling, the undisputable fact is that college basketball and football will never be quite the same.

The students at Northwestern will eventually secure at least a partial victory at the end of the appeal process. The greed and hypocrisy of the NCAA has simply made them too easy a target. Had they made some concessions over the years to reflect the changing nature of college sports or shown some level of self-awareness, this crisis may have been averted. Perhaps, after allowing video game makers to use the likenesses of college athletes in exchange for millions of dollars, the athletes may have found it easier to accept not receiving any of that money if the NCAA had allowed enterprising athletes to make their own money off their likenesses, like selling autographed merchandise. Instead, the NCAA pretended that college sports was no different than it was 50 years ago, when it truly was student athletics and not a billion dollar industry.

95% of all criticism of the NCAA is entirely accurate, but I am not convinced that the decision is going to be as beneficial for the players as the critics are suggesting. For all of the NCAA’s faults, they deserve tremendous credit for finding a way to make basketball and football fans across the country excited about watching teams made up of players who for the most part are nowhere near as talented as professional benchwarmers. It isn’t just alumni either; the networks wouldn’t spend millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast Notre Dame football games if it were just former students that were watching.    Though it is true that players should be able to profit from their own likeness, it is also true that most college players only have a market for their likeness because of the NCAA.

Maybe it is just that I have never attended a major US college, but for the life of me I have never understood how people could become so fanatical about watching what is essentially glorified minor league sports only with much less competitive balance and the players get scholarships instead of paychecks. People who wouldn’t spend $10 to see a completive AAA baseball game played by professional players who are almost good enough to be in majors will happily spend a small fortune to join 70,000 other people to watch an amateur football team beat another by 50 points.

What the Northwestern players are actually asking for, though they may not realize it, is to be treated like the minor league players that they really are. The risk for the students in all this is that college football fans may wake up one day and realize they are actually watching minor league sports, and one with an average talent level much lower than the Canadian Football League. There are many former Heisman Trophy quarterbacks that have not been able to secure a starting job in the CFL. Up until now American sports fans have been acting like they are under some kind of spell that makes them believe college sports is on par with professional sports. What happens if the fallout from the Northwestern case breaks that spell?