Monday, April 29, 2013

The Big Out

It's tempting to compare Jason Collins with Jackie Robinson; after all, the biopic about Robinson, "42", is a hot movie ticket right now and both are pioneers.

Yet Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line still seems like a bigger deal than Collins' first-ever announcement by an American major-sports player that he's gay. I say that because Robinson was demonstrably the first black big-league ballplayer, while Collins is certainly not the first gay pro jock. He's just the first to say so while still playing the game.

Make no mistake, though: this is a big deal. It's a big deal because men's sports remain riven with homophobic attitudes. Anti-gay slurs are still commonplace on the playing fields and the sidelines.  When Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice recently lost his job, the videotaped spewing of homophobic insults was widely aired. Sadly, those of us who've been around the sports scene were hardly shocked.

Nor were we really shocked when 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver made his widely-reported pre-Super Bowl comments, saying he wouldn't accept an openly-gay teammate. The reality, of course, is that Culliver probably already has played with gay teammates--he just didn't know it.

And that's what's significant about Jason Collins. From now on, there's a face and a name to go with the hazy notion of the gay jock. The next Mike Rice who wants to demean someone by calling him a "fag" will have to come to grips with the hardnosed, intelligent, dignified image of Jason Collins.

Collins is listed in the roster as standing 7 feet tall.  He's even bigger than that today.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cruel Shoes

Nice kicks, eh? Those are Nike's "Lunar MVP Pro Pregame" shoes and they're very popular among San Francisco Giants players and coaches. Of course, they come in other colorways too, so you can bet other teams are sporting them as well.

Those are the cleatless models, ideal for jogging in the outfield during spring training or for a starting pitcher on his off-day to wear while lounging in the dugout and spitting sunflower seeds.

Nike makes a similar-looking metal-cleated model worn by many big-leaguers, including the Giants' Angel Pagan. He may want to re-think that part of his game-day wardrobe.

Pagan was hit on the right foot by a pitch from San Diego's Eric Stults in the first inning of Sunday's Giants-Padres game. Pretty much everyone in the ballpark knew it and television viewers could easily see the pitch glance off Pagan's toe. But home plate umpire Bob Davidson missed the call and no amount of pleading from Pagan or Giants manager Bruce Bochy could get him to re-think the situation. Pagan ended up grounding out

Fans of a certain age had to be clamoring for the Giants to track down the ball and show it to Davidson; surely, the smudge of shoe polish on the ball would convince Davidson to change his mind.  After all, shoe polish had played a similar role in two legendary World Series games. Nippy Jones of the Braves in 1957 and Cleon Jones of the Mets in 1969 were both awarded first base after umps were shown shoe polish-smudged balls.

Ah, but that was then and this is now. Those shiny Nikes never see shoe polish. Progress? You be the judge. But if I was Angel Pagan, I'd be re-thinking my footwear choices.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Golf's Goof

Take nothing away from Adam Scott. His playoff win over Angel Cabrera at the Masters was gripping drama and Australians are rightfully celebrating the first-ever Augusta win by one of their own.

Sure, there'll be some downstream grumbling about Scott's use of one of those goofy "anchored" putters, which could end up being outlawed by the Lords of Golf.

But a putter kerfuffle is nothing compared to the real issue facing professional golf: the sport can't get out of its own way when it comes to something very basic. Golf is having a rules crisis.

The Tiger Woods drop on Friday's 15th hole is just the latest highly-visible reminder that the gentle old game of golf is having real trouble adjusting to the Age of Instant Media.

Some have written that golf's rules are too complicated and that's why Woods committed (or didn't commit) a violation.  Nonsense. Golf's rules are no more puzzling than those of baseball or football, and both of those sports move a heck of a lot faster. The difference is that baseball and football employ real-time referees who spot infractions and mete out justice on the spot.

Golf relies on a quaint old notion of self-policing...until it doesn't.  In this case, all was well until somebody called Masters officials to say they'd seen Woods drop his ball improperly after his approach shot rebounded off the flagstick and into the water. And then Woods himself told reporters he'd made an improper drop--a 2-stroke penalty.

After that, it gets even crazier. Since Woods had signed a scorecard without taking the penalty strokes, he could have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard (that's how Roberto DiVincenzo lost the 1968 Masters). But Masters officials decided to let him play on. It's a good thing he didn't win the tournament; if he had, the debate would never end.

But there still needs to be a serious discussion within the sport. Sure, the old "call your own" gentleman's code was fine way back when. But in a world where amateur officials are perched in front of their high-def TV's and super-slo-mo DVR's, ready to pounce on every perceived violation, golf has a problem. It's one thing for the Twitterverse to debate whether a referee blew the call. It's entirely another for the Twitterverse to be the referees.

Golf can easily fix this. Empower rules officials to assess penalties on the spot. If Woods' drop was improper, he should have been hit with the penalty as soon as he hit the ball. Stop accepting phone calls from TV viewers. Does the NFL do this? Restore some certainty to the proceedings. A bad call or non-call is better than a call that takes hours to happen.

Sure, the game of golf can be slow.  Judging its rules doesn't need to be.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Coaching

It's been a bit amusing to watch the handwringing and indignation surrounding the Mike Rice story. In case you've missed the endless video replays, he's the Rutgers University basketball coach who was fired this week after video surfaced showing him engaged in a variety of manic and abusive behavior during practices.

The reaction of many brought back memories of Captain Renault in the film Casablanca: "I am find that gambling is going on in here!" Was anyone paying any attention to Rice's sideline behavior during his tenure at Rutgers? If so, how could they not have been asking questions about what he was doing away from the live crowds and TV cameras?

Let's go deeper here and ask some hard questions about what it is to be a coach today. Full disclosure: I grew up as the son and grandson of coaches. Both my father and his father were credentialed teachers who also coached high school teams. Both coached a variety of sports. My grandfather's legacy as "The Coach" at Kingsburg High School south of Fresno was such that years after his retirement, I could walk into that town and invoke his name; people recalled him as a pillar of the community.

In fact, the honorific "Coach" is itself emblematic of the esteem in which coaches were held. I have vivid memories of a retired NFL star who had briefly played for my father in high school spotting my dad at a football game. As they shook hands in greeting, the quarterback didn't call him "Mr. Bunger" or "Jim". He called him "Coach". It's a sign of respect, both for the person and the position.

As I mentioned earlier, both Dad and Grandpa were teachers, both in the literal and figurative sense. To them, coaching was an extension of teaching: they saw themselves as molders of young minds. Of course they wanted to win when their teams competed, but that wasn't Job One. First and foremost, they were teachers--and they had the gradebooks and lesson plans to prove it.

Sounds quaint, doesn't it? Let's fast-forward to this week's poster child for Out-of-Control Coaching, Mike Rice. Nothing in his resume' suggests "teacher". He wrapped up his basketball playing career at Fordham and immediately became an assistant coach at his alma mater.  There followed a series of brief stays as he worked his way up the college hoops food chain, eventually becoming a head coach before he was 40. Nowhere is there evidence of him teaching anything beyond an inbounds play or a zone trap.

Make no mistake: Mike Rice was employed to win basketball games. Until his methods became an embarrassment to all, he remained employed.  Nobody spent much time worrying about whether he was helping build good citizens.

It goes a lot deeper. Stop by your local high school and ask how many of the coaches are also teachers. No matter what the answer, it'll be a smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The days of the math teacher/football coach or civics teacher/basketball coach are rapidly disappearing.  Heck, it's getting hard to find P.E. teachers who want to coach.

What's going on? Let me offer a few thoughts:

  •  Money. The Oakland Unified School District just posted an opening for a head basketball coach at Oakland Tech High School. The pay? About $2800 a year. You do the math.
  • Administrative and community support.  You'll find no shortage of stories about coaches beset by pushy parents and left dangling by spineless administrators. I will never forget the day I watched a father call his daughter over to the backstop during a high school softball game and direct her to ignore what the coach had just said. 
  • A cultural shift. There was once general agreement that high school and college sports existed to impart valuable lessons about effort, teamwork, sportsmanship and the like. Now? College sports are a multi-billion dollar business and high school (or lower) teams seem to function as feeders to that system. 
In my unspectacular high school sports career, every single one of my coaches was a faculty member. Many of my teachers coached other teams. The school was a web of interlocking relationships between the classrooms and the playing field.  Teaching and coaching weren't separated; they were joined at the hip.

Perhaps my hazy memories are laughable to you. Or maybe you agree that something's awry. I don't know if the trend can be reversed; it would take general agreement that teaching matters and that coaching is a form of teaching. It would require a generation of my-kid-first parents to back off and let school sports become something more than an audition for a mythical college scholarship. It would require communities to see beyond a win-loss record to measure the value of a man or woman named Coach.

If you ask the men who played for the legendary John Wooden at UCLA what they learned from the "Wizard of Westwood", they won't talk about the wins and losses. They'll talk about the life lessons he imparted, about his Pyramid of Success.

In an era where we seem to want to measure a teacher's value by how her students perform on an annual test, maybe it's not shocking that we've allowed coaching to come to this. But before you dismiss me, ask yourself: would you rather see your kid coached by his history teacher or by Mike Rice?