Monday, November 30, 2009

Tiger's Tale

Tiger Woods isn't talking, and some say that's his right.

I disagree--to a point. Let me explain.

Whatever happened chez Tiger is between him and his wife. Period. The rest of us have no business poking our noses into Tiger's lair. The mere fact that he's a millionaire celebrity doesn't mean he--any more than you or I--owe the rest of the world any more detail about his private life than he cares to share.

But. The traffic accident didn't occur on private property. It happened on a public roadway, and it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that when Woods got into that Cadillac, he was either already injured or, at the very least, in an unsafe emotional state. I don't know about you, but I want anybody piloting a deadly weapon to be possessed of all his faculties.

The moment Woods backed onto the street, the rules changed. His expectation of privacy went out the window. When you get behind the wheel in your own driveway, you're still in your castle. When you hit the street, you're on our road, and the people have a right to some answers. The fact that the only victims were a tree and a fire hydrant doesn't change this reality: Tiger Woods, based on the sparse facts we have available, was in no condition to operate a motor vehicle safely.

I don't take this position lightly. I think we, as a society, spend way too much time engaged in salacious voyeurism. I deplore the celebrity-fixated tabloid culture. But I also don't think anybody should get a pass because of who they are, and unsafe driving is unsafe driving, no matter who's doing it.

We don't need dishy details. All Woods has to do (assuming this is what happened) is tell the Florida Highway Patrol, "We had an argument, and I was upset." The troopers can then decide if that merits a charge of impaired driving.

End of discussion.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Main de Dieu

When Argentina's Diego Maradona used his hand to help score a key goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals vs. England, he described it as "la mano de Dios", or "the hand of God". It's a big story in soccer lore.

And now, we have "la main de Dieu", for the double hand-ball committed by France's Thierry Henry (who was offside as well) before he assisted on the goal that allowed France to qualify for the 2010 World Cup field. The losing Irish are devastated, with government officials demanding the French replay the match to right an obvious wrong.

That's silly, of course; bad calls are as much a part of sport as the weather and injuries. Unless someone can prove the ref who says he never saw Henry touch the ball was working in cahoots with the French, this match is over.

But of course, with the outrage comes the usual demand for video replay. I'd suggest that soccer, a sport that persists in keeping the actual length of the game a fuzzy approximation by adding "stoppage time", is unlikely to suddenly jump into the replay business.

However, the sport could easily improve its officiating by putting more eyes on the field. The NFL regulates 22 players with 7 officials on the field. Soccer, on a larger field, uses only 3. That's the same number who monitor 10 players on an NBA court.

In particular, soccer should assign an assistant referee to each goal area, where fouls and hand-ball calls (or the lack thereof) are most likely to have a sudden impact on the game. It's an obvious improvement, and it could be done tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Go For 2!

Just had an impassioned discussion with my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker about Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to go for a 2-point conversion with the Cardinal leading USC 48-21 midway through the 4th quarter.

Full disclosure of my loyalties: my family has always leaned toward Cal and away from Stanford, and most definitely away from USC. But I like 'SC coach Pete Carroll and respect his program. I'm also thrilled about Harbaugh's resurrection of the Stanford program, and I'm a big fan of tailback/outfielder Toby Gerhart. Freshman QB Andrew Luck is another Cardinal worth watching.

Anyway, I thought it was entirely appropriate that Harbaugh shoot for two with that 48-21 lead. After all, 50 looks so much nicer than 48 on the scoreboard. But seriously, Stanford entered that game as the underdog, and USC is the 700-pound gorilla of the Pac-10. It's not like Stanford was pulling this stunt on an overmatched opponent.

What Harbaugh did has obvious downside potential. You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind. But what Harbaugh was doing, I believe, was telling his players (and potential recruits), "We fear no one. So what if USC doesn't like it? Let 'em come and get us."

Steve says it was a bush-league decision. He says it was an attempt to "run up the score". He might be right about the former, and for sure he's right about the latter. If successful, Stanford would have widened its lead by an entire point. Hoo-boy.

"Running up the score" is leaving your first-team defense in against the other guys when you have a big late lead. Oh, like USC did at Stanford last year, when Carroll sent the big dogs back in and called blitzes against a Stanford team trying to save some face in a 45-23 whipping.

Look, it's obvious there's no love lost between these two coaches or their programs. But it's pretty clear that Stanford is the little dog and 'SC's the big one. That extra point (which, by the way, Stanford didn't get--perhaps the only big stop USC's defense made all day) had no bearing on the final score. But the willingness to go for it in front of 90,000 fans at the Coliseum was a statement by Harbaugh. It was his own way of sticking the Stanford Axe in the turf, the way Tommy Trojan shoves that sword in the ground before every USC game.

And while they won't say it out loud, I'll bet several other Pac-10 coaches got a nice warm feeling when they heard about it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Horrifying Scene

If you saw Jahvid Best's aerobatic act in the Cal-Oregon State football game, you'll never forget it.

Best's 7-yard touchdown run ended with a vault toward the end zone. For a moment, it looked like one of the most remarkable plays ever. Best was so high in the air, it seemed he might just take flight and stay aloft.

But then he crashed. Hard. And for a brief moment, the TV cameras captured the blank stare on his face and it was obvious that something was very wrong.

Here's a simple rule: when the guys wearing fire department turnout coats are running toward you, that's not a good thing. Best was quickly surrounded by Berkeley Fire Department crews, Cal athletic trainers, and his family. The crowd in the stadium and the TV audience couldn't see enough to know his condition, but it didn't look good.

Eventually, Best was wheeled off on a stretcher, his head immobilized, his body draped in a white blanket; his face obscured by an oxygen mask.

Frightening, and sobering.

For Best's young teammates and opponents, a vivid reminder of what can happen when you play the violent game of football. But also, for those young men and all of us, a reminder that everything can change in an instant. Literally: one moment you're flying, and the next, your future is uncertain.

It turns out Best did not suffer the spinal damage we all feared. He did sustain the mother of all concussions, but was released from the hospital after an overnight stay. We can all hope the best medical minds are watching him carefully and will make darned sure his brain is healthy before he ever steps on a football field again.

And perhaps we can reflect on that stunning moment when we rose to cheer his feat of daring and athleticism--just before fear punched us all in the gut.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Hubris Of The Yankees

The New York Yankees and their fans are a little like that old phrase: "He was born standing on third base and thought he hit a triple."

The Bronx Spenders just wrapped up their 27th World Series title (in their 40th Series appearance), and all you hear is people talking about "how long they've waited".

For the record, the last Yankees title was way back in...2000. Nine long years ago. But to hear the response from fans, broadcasters, and players, you'd think they'd been waiting as long as, say, Giants fans. Also for the record, I have lived my entire life without seeing the Giants win it all, and I'm not that young. And I'm not even a Cubs fan.

It's part of New York's arrogant charm that enduring a nine-year World Championship drought can be viewed as a Herculean labor. It's also very Gotham-like to pretend that it's even a fair competition.

Year in and year out, the Yankees rake in more revenue and spend more on players than any other team. Way more than most teams; obscenely more than others. Look: money doesn't necessarily buy love, happiness, or World Series titles. But it doesn't hurt.

I'm perfectly fine with the Yankees winning it all. I'm a big fan of players like Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Matsui. I don't even really mind the financial unfairness that gives them an advantage each and every year; dynasties give everyone else something to shoot at.

But please, Pinstripe Nation. Learn a little humility. That thing rattling around in your mouth today is your silver spoon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


OK, it's not quite like the fabled 1982 game in which Chaminade shocked then-#1 Virginia (led by Ralph Sampson).

But for now, it'll have to do: Division II LeMoyne going into the Carrier Dome for one of those NCAA "exhibition" games (really, a way for the big schools to sneak in an early game that doesn't count against their season game limit), and upsetting the #25 Orange, 82-79.

What makes the story line juicier here is that the upset happened on Syracuse's home floor, with the 'Cuse's legendary Jim Boeheim prowling the sidelines. And, to make it even more delicious, LeMoyne is from Syracuse. One can only imagine how puffed-up they are on campus today. They certainly didn't waste any time updating the athletic department website.

LeMoyne's Dolphins are no slouches at the D-II level; last year's team went 20-11 (including an 85-51 hammering by Syracuse). But let's be honest: there's a huge gap between gearing up for Merrimack, Bentley, and St. Anselm--and wandering into the Carrier Dome.

You probably know by now: I'm all for the underdog. It's important for the little guy to win once in a while, if only to keep the big guys a little less cocky. Let's all savor LeMoyne's win for a while.