Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Give it a rest...

I believe strongly in the concept of amateurism in college athletics.  I justify my support of college athletics at the University of Maryland with reference to the educational opportunities afforded to students.  The value of such an opportunity is underscored by the college search that we are engaged in right now with a family friend -- most schools are simply not affordable to Americans from low-income backgrounds.  For an elite few, athletic scholarships are an equalizer.

But, man, the NCAA makes it really, really hard to defend the status quo.

Here's Pat Fitzgerald, coach of Northwestern University's football team, in his discussion with the media explaining his opposition to his players organizing into a labor union:
"It's been tough for me to be silent," Fitzgerald said. "I believe it's in their best interests to vote no. I'm a teacher, I'm a coach, I'm an educator. There's no laws against that."
I went to an elite liberal arts college in the Midwest.  According to the school's Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the highest salaried professor at the school makes less than $300k a year.  No administrator at the college makes more than $600k.  At Carleton College, a peer institution, no administrator or professor made more than $500k.  At Haverford College, no employee made more than $600k.  At tony Wellesley College and Vassar College, no employee made more than $700k, while the highest paid employee at Swarthmore College earned a total package of just over $700k.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, the teacher Pat Fitzgerald received a base salary of $1.97 million and a total compensation package of $2.22 million.  (Northwestern finished the 2011 regular season with a 6 and 6 record and lost the Meineke Car Care Bowl to Texas A & M).

The educator Pat Fitzgerald made more in total compensation than Patrick M. McCarthy, the Director of the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute and Chief of the division of Surgery-Cardiac Surgery at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of medicine.

That's stupid.

But not as stupid as Mark Emmert's (President of the NCAA) $1.42 million base salary the same academic year (total compensation package $1.67 million) or the nearly $1 million James Isch (Chief Operating Officer of the NCAA) made in total compensation that year. 

Again, the highest paid professor at my alma mater makes less than $300k.  During the 2011-2012 academic year, there were fifteen (15) employees at the NCAA that made more than that.  Fifteen!   

So, if you are telling me that allowing students to organize into a labor union poses a threat to college athletics as we know it, I'm ok with that.  Because ultimately, Jeff Samardzija is right, if you're making this much money off the backs of non-compensated student athletes, "it would be nice to see if they did a little bit more to try and help these guys out in the long run."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sequoia, You Are Magic

On Sunday, fans of Maryland's Women's basketball program were invited to celebrate a remarkably accomplished senior class, culminating in Alyssa Thomas's number being raised to the rafters after a blowout win marking the end to ACC regular-season play (now and forever). 

Back during the 2010-2011 season, we took our eldest daughter, then two years old, often to Comcast.  These trips triggered a new, deeper appreciation of the program while we watched Alicia DeVaughn, Alyssa Thomas, and Sequoia Austin build a new identity for the team.  With Essence already enrolled a year prior and the transfer of Katie Rutan into the mix, the school had a core group of incredibly charismatic upperclassmen going into this season.

That dynamic shown through in the game against Virginia Tech.  And while we are marking the end of the collegiate careers of one of the best players to ever don a Terrapin jersey, in this household we're celebrating the tenure of our favorite Maryland student-athlete ever -- Sequoia Austin.

Sequoia has always been the player that our two girls most want to see at team events.  Sequoia's smile at the annual mini-golf games and autograph sessions has been electric, it is contagious.  Positivity Monday was a misnomer insofar as it has been positivity pretty much every minute of every hour of every day.

Prior to player introductions on Sunday, AwesumPawsum brought down the house by leading the cheerleading squad's routine (this happened:  http://instagram.com/p/lGPuR6IYjK/#).  Sequoia then went back to the bench and, along with Essence Townsend, was announced with the starting lineup for the first time this season.  Essence and Sequoia played the first five minutes and then played several minutes towards the close of the second half.  It was awesome.

I often doubt that the selfless acts of a pure heart can rise above cynicism and world weariness, but there it is (or was):  people chanting Sequioa's name, dancing with her, delighting when she jumped with joy into Alyssa Thomas's arms after the ceremony. 

Our section was packed to the gills with young girls.  A couple of rows behind us, towards the end of the games, a group of them talked about the prospect of meeting Alyssa after the game.  There was disbelief and excitement, questions as to whether it was, in fact, true.  Yup.  It is.  Alyssa Thomas.  Wow.  And then the question:  "Are we going to meet Sequoia too?"  Followed by echoes of "Can we?" 

This is something both my daughters agree with whole-heartedly.  All of the players are great.  Sequoia Austin, a former walk-on, is something else.  She is magic.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Afternoon Out

Me to five-year old:  "The women's basketball team is playing today at 2.  Do you want to go?"

Five-year old:  "Yes.  Yes, I want to go."

Me to wife:  Ok, so I'll take our oldest to the game and the youngest will stay here with you?

Two-year old:  "I want to go.  I want to go to basketball too."

There hasn't been a lot of opportunities for me to take both our girls out of the house and give my spouse an extended respite from the children.  Trips to the playground don't last terribly long before the youngest begins to miss her mom.  And activities requiring a greater time commitment risk full-fledged meltdowns with little prospect of enjoyment.

But there is the University of Maryland's Women's College Basketball team, offering over two hours of distraction without once netting a plea to return home.

We are very fortunate to be so close to an elite women's basketball program, particularly one that has done remarkably well at embracing its identity.  Students may not show up to games with any regularity.  Kids do and are welcomed.  The line for Rita's was ridiculously long this afternoon.

With all the kids and all the activities, there is no issue about staying to the final whistle.  And hanging out for the conclusion of a fifty-point blowout was rewarded first by an Essence Townsend basket and then, moments later, a field goal from Sequoia Austin.   

Monday, October 21, 2013

Done and Dusted

That D.C. United is terrible is no longer noteworthy. 

When United closes out the season on Sunday against Houston with 3 wins in 34 matches, the more remarkable measure of futility will be that if they are shutout, both Mike Magee and Marco Di Vaio will have a chance to score as many goals (both have scored 20 this season with a game to go) as D.C. United has scored collectively as a team (21).

Even more remarkably, the management of the squad is so spectacularly inept that there isn't a plausible basis for expecting significant improvement in 2014.

Ben Olsen, despite coaching the team to a U.S. Open Cup championship, needs to be separated from the team.  That he will not be -- based, ostensibly, on the U.S. Open Cup run -- is hysterical; this is a competition of so little meaning to the club that the games are not held at RFK but out at the SoccerPlex.  While we love the games and look forward to the trips to Boyds every season, this is not a venue that is practically accessible to many United supporters.  The feat is therefore largely a theoretical notion, abstracted because it happened entirely separate from the crap United supporters have had to endure for league games at RFK.

Still, we go.  And still, the club has found ways to make the gameday experience so enjoyable that it doesn't matter to my kids that the team we're supposed to root for is abysmal.  My girls have taken penalty kicks on the field, my eldest was able to "train" with United players on the pitch at RFK, my youngest asks to go just to get her face painted, we've seen a practice, and the Meet the Team Day 2013 was fantastic.  When the Fire ripped apart United, while the VW Garage was closed and there was basically nothing for the kids to do, they cracked themselves up by making up goofy cheers and encouraging other kids to join in.

Nevertheless, it is fitting that the lasting memory I will have of this D.C. United season will be unpleasant and took place at, of all places, Ludwig on Saturday night. 

We walked into the Wake Forest game a little late and, handing over our tickets, I looked up to see Josh Wolff standing next to us.  Two of Josh's sons trailed behind him, alongside my girls, and Wolff hustled them forward.  The reason Josh was asking his boys to move quickly became clear when we rounded the merchandise booth:  Standing over by the courtesy ticket overhang was an agitated and animated Kurt Morsink ranting at a staff person. 

Retelling the story at FedEx this afternoon, a friend called it the most pathetic "Do You Know Who I Am Story?" that he'd heard.  The total cost for bringing in the partial Wolff clan to the game was $20 at the ticket booth.  A dude who works for a professional sports club should appreciate, beyond most, the minimal discretion afforded to staff holding comps.  But there was Morsink, who looked, from where I stood, to be berating staff.

Now maybe this is wrong or maybe there was some good reason for Morsink's behavior.  I could have walked over to confirm what I think I saw, but by the time Wolff had pulled Morsink away, I was so viscerally angered by the sight that I was shouting epithets in front of my kids.

It is beyond comprehension that Morsink is a scouting coordinator for a first division professional soccer team.  Perhaps he's objectively great at the job.  But there is no way that I would ever treat someone working at DC United in a similar fashion.  And I cannot imagine behaving like that at a place that has produced several of the members of your first team roster and where academy players are currently housed.

This is a different D.C. United in terms of the boy's club that now runs the player side of the club.  Forget accountability.  Instead it is kerosene.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Taking Care of the Kids

I overemphasize process.  The end result, the actual execution of a game plan, is what ultimately matters.  But the development of nascent talent or the construction of a strategy can be just as captivating. 

I enjoy spring training.  Not for the fake games, but for the chance to see coaches working directly with players and eavesdropping on evaluations or advice.  I am probably one of a handful of supporters that was excited about D.C. United opening up a single practice to season ticket holders this year.

Maryland football opens a scrimmage to fans this last Saturday?  I'm there.  If nothing else, it is an opportunity to watch the implementation of the read option by a group of quarterbacks with different skill sets.

My eldest decided to join me for the afternoon and, as is convention for Maryland football events, Pepsi-sponsored activities were provided for kids, including a bounce house.  The equipment sale let her buy a used jersey that she quickly converted into a dress.  And the families of players in the stands provided the rest of her entertainment for the day.

The key to enjoying Maryland's "Fan Appreciation Day" is moving quickly away from seats within earshot of Maryland "supporters" who loudly criticize the players, the coaches, the school for their obvious collective and individual incompetence.  There's no way to get away from this pestilence once the season starts and you are wedded to your seats.  But this is just a scrimmage and you can move around until you find a section populated by players' families, for whom the novelty of seeing their kid play Division I football has yet to wear thin.

An example:  The fans know that the quarterback should have taken the obvious option.  They know that there was a man open in the flat and they know a football should have been delivered there.  The families, on the other hand, remark at the speed of the game.  They remark at how much bigger and faster everyone has become.  They marvel at the development of these young men, even when there is much, much further to go.

These observations are further driven home later, after the scrimmage, when you are down on the turf with your kid watching the players interact with their parents, siblings, and extended family.  My daughter could not get over how big some of the players were.  Some of the players' families could not get over hearing their sons called "sir" by fans.

It ain't all light and sweetness.  The bulk of the people that have come out were angling for a Stefon Diggs autograph or memento.  While the team sat easily at tables spread the length of the field, barricades were set up at midfield to create two distinct lines.  One for Coach Edsall and one for Mr. Diggs, although the extra demarcation for the former didn't seem necessary.  Diggs is the show -- and he deserves to be -- but his tangible benefits from the limelight at this moment are no different from any other scholarship athlete.

My daughter has never waited for an autograph from Maryland's #1.  She does not know who he is, other than when I repeat to her (for no apparent purpose) that she saw him play at Good Counsel.  Instead, she knows Joe Riddle and Michael Tart, having bought a #29 jersey in honor of players that have always happily signed her helmets and let her know that her presence was appreciated.  She knows Dexter McDougle, having seen him repeatedly at gymnastics meets.  She knows Shawn Petty, Alex Twine, and Anthony Nixon Jr., because I can't stop telling her how good they are.  She knows Zimuzo Nwaigwe because I tell her how hard he's worked to sit behind that table.

She knows all of them because the program makes the players accessible to its young fans and because the players, in the main, participate with good humor and a convincing sense of gratitude that the kids have taken an interest.

And so it ends up not just being a practice session for the players.  Saturday afternoon was also a dry run for me.  My eldest now says she wants to go to games this season, as long as it is not too hot.  There's a process:  open events for fans + bouncy house + likable, good-humored players = fans.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Meeting the Team

This has been a tough season as a United supporter.  There is no shortage of things about which to complain.  Despite a league win last night and a decent run in the U.S. Open Cup that continues Wednesday, there is little hope for any meaningful turnaround.  And the long term prospects for the franchise are weak.

Still, there is nothing better in the professional sports world than being a D.C. United supporter and season ticket holder.  Today was the club's "Meet the Team Day."  In the midst of a historically bad season, players mingled easily with fans and the club made nearly everyone involved with the operational management of the team available to the public.  Coach Olsen didn't man an autograph table, but he did conduct a question and answer session with fans in the visitor's clubhouse.

The "Meet the Team Day" is a specially-calendered event with my daughter, the only absolute must-do of the season.  Every year it seems to get better.  More access, more activities, more opportunities for interactions.  The club may not be able to sell a stadium experience or an on field product that merits significant investment of time and treasure, but it can sell its people.

For professional athletes, the bulk of United's roster are ridiculously nice people.  Beyond their enthusiasm for making connections with supporters, the stories that staff tell about individual players paint a portrait of down-to-earth athletes who value camaraderie more highly than their own glorification.

This is the first year that my eldest has wanted to stay until the very end of the event.  That is almost entirely due to the players (face painting and dipping dots also played a role) and their families.    

Thank you, D.C. United, for another very nice afternoon.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Turnaround

How quickly can a flailing, comically incompetent franchise turns its fortunes around?


It turns out that with capable management, pretty fast.

Attending Mystics games the past two seasons has been more of a political act than a chance to catch a sporting event.  I want my daughters to see women's professional basketball at Verizon because women's professional basketball should exist.  But its been a drag.  The coaching and management have been so horrid that you walk away feeling bad for the players and happy for the ones that were able to escape.  And with DC BasketCases bringing to a close their terrific blog, if the Mystics were terrible again this season, it is a tree falling in the middle of the forest.

So no pomp and circumstance for the game against the Lynx tonight.  I justified the trip downtown with reference to the homecoming of Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers and Rebekkah Brunson.

Now it bugs me that Washington opted for Ohio State's Tayler Hill over Tianna Hawkins in this year's draft.  But, with Hill getting significant minutes on the floor and Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne at the 3 and 4, the 2013 iteration of the Mystics' is well-balanced inside and outside.

Yes, Washington fell apart in the fourth quarter.  But after scoring only eight points in the first nine minutes of the quarter, Washington notched ten in the last fifty-one seconds, including making eight of eight free throws and a back breaking nothing but net turnaround fadeaway jumper from Kia Vaughn.

Three wins in four games.  For a team that won five all of last year and six the year before that.  It has been a long time -- a long time -- since we have paid attention to the end of a Mystics game.  That was fun. 

Now if the team can convince enough people to show up to justify re-opening the Dunkin Donuts on game nights, we will be back in business.