Monday, December 24, 2007

Goodbye To You

My annoyance with Scott Skiles' stewardship of the Bulls had been relieved somewhat by two recent events: first, I was behind the basket with the Bulls at Verizon Wednesday night handle the Wizards and Griffin and Wallace didn't see the floor, while Gray began to show what he might be able to offer the team for the rest of the season; second, on a lark, I was at the Comcast Center for American University's first win over Maryland since 1926-1927.

Getting beat by a school that was a stepping stone on his way to glory at College Park is probably the lowlight of Williams' Maryland career. And Maryland's fans seem resigned to it. After a pathetic loss to Ohio on December 12th , Maryland fans -- who had enjoyed their team's 131 win and 3 loss record at home against non-conference opponents under Williams prior to the Ohio game -- filed out of Comcast with 3:30 left in the game and their team down 10. Maryland's fans seem resigned to the fact that Gary Williams is not going to be able to turn around what seems to be an otherwise fairly talented Terp squad (they embarrassed Illinois in the other game that I attended this year, resulting in me stupidly telling ACC-loving colleagues to watch out for the Terps when conference play began). Terps fans face at least two more ugly losses before the ACC schedule kicks in: a road game against Charlotte on January 5 (a team that has already beat Wake Forest) and a home game against Holy Cross on January 8 (a team that managed to beat Ohio). Slip-ups against Delaware and Savannah State do not seem to be as unimaginable as they would have before Saturday. But most Terps fans will not call for Williams' head for some time, although the problem with the team clearly rests with him -- if the players lack intensity, as Williams himself said in the postgame interview accompanying the departure of the fans remaining at Comcast, that is because he hasn't found a way to motivate them. And this is how it should be: Williams has an unparalleled record of success here and he's earned the right to test fans' patience while he figures out what has gone wrong.

The same cannot be said of Scott Skiles. In a surprise but necessary move, the Bulls fired Skiles today. I don't revel in the news as much as I would, say, celebrate Ron Turner's removal from the Bears (I am not bitter at all and don't constantly find myself thinking about how with a competent offensive coordinator the Bears win the Lions and Redskins games that I stupidly attended and the Monday night game against the Vikings and that the Bears would then be 9-6 and a difficult out in the NFC playoffs... again, not bitter). Nevertheless, I still consider the announcement a nice Christmas present from John Paxson. It had to happen and not just to embarrass Sam Smith for another prescient article (great call: "But thanks to Artis Gilmore, no one is about to be fired, cut, traded or released"). Commentators tend to focus on how demanding Skiles is of his players. But that is only because most sportswriters are lazy and would rather pilfer from each other than come up with an insight that would assist fans in understanding the game. The reality was that Skiles was tough on young players and once they bent to his will, he largely did not hold them accountable for their failings or backsliding. Skiles' coaching was largely an extension of his ego. He emphasized hard work because hard work is the quality about his play that he was most proud of and rightly so. But a berserker attitude is not sufficient to build a winning program (absent the population of a team with Nocioni clones). Skiles' coaching and game-time management remains deficient. And while he is frequently heard to complain that certain players haven't developed sufficiently (namely Tyrus Thomas) neither has his coaching. After taking out the Heat in decisive fashion in the first round of the playoffs last year, Skiles was outclassed by Flip Saunders in the second round. Skiles' questionable decision-making cost the the team the best chance the Bulls have had at making the NBA Finals since 1996.

Writers who think they know basketball chalk the Bulls' problems up to Paxson's decision to add Ben Wallace and jettison Tyson Chandler. I vehemently disagree. Paxson has done everything possible to give Skiles a stable of talent that should be the envy of the East. The team features some of the most gifted young talent in the league: Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Shefolosha, Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng are all 24 years old or younger. Each year, the talent on the team improves. And yet this year the Bulls are barely better than Zeke's Knicks.

Chicago Bulls fans aren't going to file out of the United Center early without letting the entire organization know that they won't stand for pathetic performances from an outstanding team. So there you go, we all got what we wanted for the holiday: Skiles gets some rest (sleep well Scotty) and Bulls fans get the possibility of a salvaged season and a deep run in the playoffs. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


As a fan, I am constantly whining. I openly question Ron Turner's aptitude for his position -- for which he receives substantial compensation (I now also question whether David Haugh is the latest in a string of sportswriters in Chicago with little understanding of the the sports they cover and even less interest in improving their knowledge, but guess given how the rest of the country must now suffer Jay Mariotti and Skip Bayless this is a good route to follow). I loudly voice my opinion that perhaps Scott Skiles' coaching philosophy regarding young players is far too influenced by the thinking that sent Dusty Baker packing (and, conveniently, now to our division rivals -- hope everyone in Cincinatti enjoyed what Harang and Arroyo have done for you the last couple of years). It is, of course, possible that Joe Smith doesn't deserve a starting spot on the team, that Gray, Noah, and Ty's respective youthful "mistakes" on the floor are more than compensated for by what they do well, and that a quick trigger on both Hinrich and Gordon would now be entirely appropriate given their consistently poor performances. But voicing these opinions is, unfortunately, annoying to all who must suffer hearing them . . . . including those within immediate earshot last Wednesday night at the Verizon center (but what, for pity's sake, was Joe Smith doing on the floor for most of the third quarter?).

I spent an inordinate amount of time today complaining that: (a) David Moyes cost Everton at least a point by failing to keep up offensive pressure on a less than impressive Man U defense; (b) the Milan derby featured worse acting than the Spanish-language infomercials for "natural enhancement" products that aired opposite the match on GolTV (and, more importantly, that Serie A matches are unwatchable unless you enjoy dudes extending their arms, screaming, and throwing themselves to the pitch every time they are touched); (c) Blackburn -- sans Friedel, Santa Cruz, and Bentley -- has quit on Mark Hughes and they should have taken at least a point off of Chelsea's lackluster performance; (d) Ronaldinho had no business being in Barca's starting XI for today's Real Madrid clash; and (e) Dave Toub should be named offensive coordinator or, if that seems wrong to the Bears' brass, perhaps a modified Magic Eight Ball should be used in lieu of an actual person.

For this and many other reasons, I am an idiot (but that doesn't change the fact that Ron Turner is one as well). As such, I am one of a proud nation of stupid sports fans. But as much as I accept this fate, I am hesitant to accept this states of affairs fully. I am, for instance, not stupid (or drunk) enough to argue (apparently seriously) that Alan Pardew should be sacked regardless of how poor the results were from Hull's brief stay at the Valley. And as much as I screw up rules about what constitutes a foul in soccer or how the intentional grounding rule works in the NFL, I believe that screaming at refs at a sporting event requires a clear understanding of the rules of the game that you are watching (a prerequisite not met by a family of people heckling the referees at Saturday's Maryland-American University basketball match near our seats -- the use of the jump stop is not, unfortunately, travelling).

The distinction is important, because there are shared responsibilities in the interactive nature of a sporting event. In professional sports, players, whether they admit to it or not, owe their livelihood to the spectators and, as such, must earn their income by performance. Coaching staffs only exist to assist players in performing to their full potential and, in consequence, must ensure that players are able to earn said income. Fans, obviously, pay the price of admission. But that is not the alpha and the omega of fandom. The purchase price of a ticket does not absolve one of further responsibility. No team is going to be successful with the support of just one fan or one small group of fans. Although the shirtless kid waving his clothing over his head (with jeans pulled down to reveal the top half of his boxers) was bestowed adulation by the Jumbotron operator at Wednesday night's Wizards-Bulls game, the Wizards depend on ticket sales to that idiot, that idiot's friends, the two sections that are suffering that group of idiot's ranting and heckling throughout the game, and the other 14,000 fans in attendance to keep Agent Zero and crew on the floor. All of this means that the fans of a team have, at base, a responsibility to ensure that those around them are enjoying the experience. I interpret this responsibility to mean that I better have a good reason for booing or openly disapproving of a team that I am supposed to be cheering for, that I take into account the views of those around me at a game, and that I remember that the stadium is not a pub (I can get trashed at a bar after the game).

This last part seems to be the most important at the moment. I am certain that American football games have been inundated by alcohol well before I was born. But I do not believe that the behavior accompanying the public drunkenness of stadiums I attended two decades ago was as nasty as what I've experienced more recently. I harp on the theme a second time in reaction to an article that appeared in Saturday's Washington Post on the Redskins-Bears game penned by CBS News' Editorial Director, Dick Meyer. I've had different experiences than Meyer: I have enjoyed the atmosphere at Soldier Field (at this year Lion's game, the drunken fan next to us with the traffic cone on his head was either ignored or jeered by most surrounding fans when he did something obnoxious; at last year's 49ers' game, the small group of fans in our section who took to berating another fan in our section who was wearing a Montana jersey were publicly rebuked by other fans who were deliriously happy with the game's progress); I brought a large group to the Meadowlands for last year's Jets-Bears game and had a great time (despite all of us being decked out in Bears jerseys); and we've driven down to Charlotte and enjoyed the college football-like atmosphere of Panthers games.

Unfortunately, while club level seats at the Redskins-Bears games led to the worst fan experience I've ever had, I've had similarly horrible experiences at Wizards and Nationals games. All of them have involved more than just the liberal application of alcohol. Indeed, the most important factor was the desire of others to be abusive. And the rise of the idiot DC sports fan certainly is having expected results. Attendance is poor at Nationals, Wizards, and Capitals games. Non-traditional sports have achieved some measure of surprising success in the area -- although attendance has fallen sharply recently, the Washington Mystics have had the highest attendance of any franchise in the WNBA in six of their ten seasons and there are four professional soccer teams between DC and Annapolis (DC United; Washington Freedom; Crystal Palace FC USA (Annapolis); and, now, Real Maryland F.C.). The Redskins are the exception, with a long waiting list for season tickets (but seeming difficulty in selling corporate seats).

And while it is probably not representative of what anyone else in the area might think, the problems posed by alcohol combined with idiot fans has changed my thinking about my rabid sports enthusiasm. I've asked for my name to be removed from the Redskins waiting list and will continue to politely decline requests to renew our Nationals' season tickets. I'll renew our United and Hoya Hoops tickets (where there is plenty of alcohol, but far less abuse), pick up Mystics season tickets again, add Freedom, Crystal Palace, and Maryland football plans to my list of sports expenditures, and watch the rest of it on television, if at all. I'm grateful to have the options.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

What Matters (Part 2)

A sensitive issue is very much on the forefront of sports reporting in contemporary America: the interplay of culture and the tragedies and travesties that have plagued professional sports of late. The question squarely presented is: does hip-hop/rap culture have any discernible, meaningful negative impact on the ways in which African-American athletes (and, more broadly, athletes that are racial minorities) conduct themselves and their lives? If one accepts the premise that hip-hop/rap culture is having a demonstrable adverse impact -- and unfortunately I now do -- the next leap is assuming that what unfolds in professional sports is a microcosm of what is happening in larger society and reflects the pathologies that impact us as a country.

The topic is, of course, extremely controversial and sports writers who choose to address the subject risk being pilloried by their own communities. Case in point: I was shocked recently to read a recent Sports Illustrated issue that included an article on the relationship between Michael Vick and the childhood friends who turned on him; not by the article itself, but by the short explanatory blurb that appeared at the front of the magazine that seemed to come close to apologizing for the piece and, at the same time, make clear that one of its authors was African-American. Thankfully, other sportswriters have been relatively fearless in expressing their concerns. Jason Whitlock, for example, has passionately argued that something has spun horribly out of control. LZ Granderson also recently wrote an eminently personal, persuasive piece for ESPN that was not nearly as inflammatory as Whitlock's piece, but equally meaningful. Michael Wilbon added his thoughts in a controversial column for the Washington Post. Predictably, Whitlock's piece found favor in the commentary of white conservatives that rail about all things largely irrelevant to them, but useful for distracting from the increasing inequality and deteriorating opportunities for economic mobility in the country. Just as predictability, Whitlock has been hammered as a sell-out in screeds notable only for their venomous illogic. Wilbon similarly has come under fire.

Whatever type of sellout it makes me, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the celebration of violence in some of our nation's sub-culture and have been laid low by the absurdity of where we find ourselves. Scoop Jackson's two part series on his relationship with "LaTravis Hawkins" (part 1, part 2) is a strident reminder of what is at stake here: our future. Around my way, we struggle with the impact of the glorification of MS-13 and violence and misogyny in inane Reggaeton anthems that pimp Latin-American culture to the financial benefit of some large corporations that proliferate this bullsh*t. And the consequences cannot be denied, as we keep losing kids. While this should be perceived as a national tragedy regardless of one's politics, the reality is that where once we were told that "a mind is a terrible waste," most of us can only stand by and watch minds, minds that might have made a positive contribution to our communities, wither away.

For whatever reason, the recent death of major league baseball's Joe Kennedy brought these questions home to me -- not Sean Taylor's homicide, but a touching piece on Joe Kennedy written by Jeff Pearlman. I came out of the same lower-middle class neighborhood as Joe and we went to the same junior college. In El Cajon, there are poor kids that live in apartments and poor kids that live in trailers. I used to think that despite the gangs and violence that characterized my neighborhood, I was luckier than those living in the trailers. Now I'm not so sure. Kennedy capitalized on his athletic skills, pulled himself out of the trailers and, yet, according to Pearlman remained close with those back home. He, in the vernacular of the day, "kept it real."

There is no way I would go back. Athletics kept me somewhat protected from the predators that controlled the barrio. Fundamentally, however, I understand that those who gave me a pass were the same people who created the environment that would have caused me harm. And I fear that Angel, who used aluminum baseball bats swung at the craniums of teenagers to impose his will, has been replaced by someone who, bolstered by the fictional war stories that spill out of my radio and my television, believes himself to be truly bad *ss.

These thoughts probably make me a sellout. They probably diminish my standing within my own community -- certainly some of my friends vehemently disagree with me -- and they probably provide fodder to racists who believe that minorities can never be considered the equals of whites. But I hope those who have thoughts like mine continue to express them, without fear and with greater urgency.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Wow, You Know How to Curse

The Chicago Bears' visit to FedEx Field was disappointing. Not because we had an excellent vantage point of Archuleta whiffing on yet another tackle (we had a pretty good sight line on that particular display of AA's skill in Chicago), nor because first-hand visual evidence confirms that Brian Griese is, in fact, awful (also confirmed in Chicago); no, instead, for purely personal reasons, I regret going. Sports fans in all cities, for all sports, can be jack*sses. Whether you run across them in any given venue is really the luck of the draw. Two of the more pleasant NFL experiences I've had were at the Bears last two visits to FedEx. And yet some of the most disheartening sporting events I've ever been to took place in DC: A playoff game between the Wizards and Bulls in 2005 where some genius in the Wizards promotional department thought they could inspire the Wiz to greatness with a shtick whereby the Wizards mascot playfully attacked a faux fan in a Bulls jersey with silly string. Hysterical. Particularly when drunk Wizards fans started to toss $10 beers at anyone wearing black and red shortly thereafter. Several Nationals home games surrounded in Loge by a father, after downing six or seven beers, teaching his young son how to scream profanity at the opposing team's right fielder and young men who batted about xenophobic slurs towards a dad with his young son who were happily waving a small flag of the Dominican Republic. Good times. So good in fact that I walked away from my season tickets. And then there was last night. Club section, group of six, two young kids in tow and scores of belligerent, drunk, moronic purportedly Redskins fans surrounding us.

At some point, something has gone seriously wrong in the way that a significant minority of people in the DC area behave at largely populated sporting events. Want to scream the word "c*ck" over and over again for no particular reason? Head to a Redskins game. Want to call a young woman a "b*tch" for two quarters, joined by three of your best friends? FedEx is your destination. Want to shout homophobic slurs and racial epithets after dropping several hundred dollars for the pleasure of entering an arena? Grab your Miller Lite, hop on the Blue Line, jump off at Morgan Boulevard, and walk due north.

I guess I would be able to understand the phenomenon if it was young men who just wanted to get into a fight. But each and every time any of the idiots around us was physically confronted, they backed down, slinked away, stayed silent for tens of minutes, and then slowly built their confidence back up so as to express what could not be said in even the most anarchic drinking establishment. At least in our section, the motivating force for the behavior appeared to be akin to the third-grader who, upon the departure of a teacher from the classroom, tries to impress his friends by dropping a number of f-bombs for the sake of dropping of f-bombs. Strange way to seek approval, but if that is all you have going for you, well, that is all you have going for you.

I'm angry that I've been in this area long enough to see the devolution of DC professional sports (sans soccer and Women's basketball) to places where a major attraction is the ability to offend and denigrate with impunity. Ultimately, it doesn't matter and the easy answer is to just stop going to the games. I would, however, like to think that after a decade of being here, I might be able to cheer for the local teams in games that did not matter to those of my hometown. But I can't. Wizards fans made me hate the Wizards. Last night, Redskins fans have made me hate the Redskins. And, I'm fairly sure that if the Nationals ever get fans, I'll learn to hate the Nationals as well (and should hockey ever matter again, I'll probably hate the Capitals).

Whatever. It was still a good perch to view the game:

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

What Doesn't Matter

It took place over a month ago, but I could not bring myself to face it. My annual trip back to Chicago for a Bears game happened to be for the Bears-Lions game on October 28th. Fortunately, the visit instilled in me a hatred for Ron Turner that is only surpassed by my hatred for John Shoop. (How about that Terry Shea? You don't even rate anymore). Of course, it makes watching LSU games all the more painful as I now pine over Gary Crowton in the same way that 50 Cent loves fat girls that love cake.

So no comments (well, no comments except why did I think that Griese was anything but horrible? How low are my standards for a quarterback? Where are you now Jimmy Miller?). Just photos:

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

What Matters (Part 1)

I'm learning to turn a bit away from my professional sports affiliations as the Bears and Bulls sink even further into wasted seasons and the Addicks' have suffered two horrible losses to Sheffield and Burnley at the Valley. A trip to Wales has temporarily righted the ship, but my confidence is a bit shaken.

After watching (virtually) Charlton's collapse to Burnley, we headed out to check out Georgetown as JTIII's kids took on a surprisingly competitive Fairfield squad. I have absolutely no ties to Georgetown but I feel privileged to have the opportunity to watch the Hoyas take the court nevertheless. The team is incredibly charismatic and the energy they exude is infectious. Georgetown presents, for DC residents, the last meaningful sporting event that can be attended by those on strict budgets and watching a wide diversity of my neighbors -- most of whom, like me, have no formal connection to the University -- filter into the Verizon center with broad smiles on their faces is something I look forward to. The Hoyas are doing what they ought to do in these games against lesser opponents; namely, seeing what everyone in a Georgetown jersey not named Roy Hibbert can contribute before they head to Tennessee for their showdown with Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers on December 22nd. Patrick Ewing Jr. continues to be my favorite to watch as despite obvious offensive deficiencies, PE2 never eases up on defense and his contribution (I hope) will prove a difference as the Big East season runs its course. From what we've seen so far, I am also hopeful that Macklin and Rivers will continue to develop and that Wright and Freeman remain comfortable with taking on more and more responsibility. But regardless of what happens, I am certain to enjoy it.

Later on Saturday night, we headed over to Ludwig Field to watch Maryland's very good men's soccer team take on Bradley in the third round of the NCAA's tournament. We watched the first half from the touch line behind Bradley's goal and were treated to an impressive display from Maryland's squad:

Of particular note was the Terps' phenomenal freshmen midfielder Rodney Wallace, who punched in Maryland's first goal at the 17th minute. Unfortunately, Wallace was knocked out of the match with an injury a little over six minutes later. The rest of his team picked up the slack and Maryland took a two goal lead into half time on a header by Omar Gonzalez, photographed horribly here:

Maryland dominated for much of the game, but as we sat in the bleachers for the second half, a let down seemed inevitable. Fans around us began to talk about Maryland's next possible matchup against Ohio State or Santa Barbara. A little later they talked about what it would take to make the final four, and a little later after that there were those who were wondering if this wasn't 2005 all over again. I looked up at the scoreboard with three minutes left in the game, frozen (and therefore certain that the match was going to come down to penalty kicks), and marveling that Bradley had taken only six shots in the first 87 minutes of the contest. Maryland failed to clear the ball well and the team's defense relented and Bradley scored in the 89th minute. Bradley's fans cheered wildly and the Maryland folks on the other side of the pitch scoffed that Bradley was excited to lose by one. And then Bradley scored again. 42 seconds from time. And this time, the Bradley supporters were orgasmic. The cheers were visceral. The reaction of the squad on the field was of immense joy. And it was guaranteed that Maryland wasn't moving on. Bradley confirmed it with a minute fifteen left in the second overtime. And there it was again. Bradley's cadre of fans out of their minds. The joy, the thrill, evinced by the folks from Peoria was usefully contrasted by a sole drunken idiot Maryland student screaming "F*ck you" at what he believed to be the referee but was, in fact, a member of Bradley's coaching staff. (Otherwise, the Maryland fans were great... the impossibly-sustained "Knock, Knock, Who's There? Banana. Banana Who?" chant at Bradley's goalie is one of the most improbable things I've witnessed at a sporting event).

I know next to nothing about college soccer and I was left a bit startled by Bradley's reaction to the win. Of course, knocking off Indiana and Maryland in consecutive games is impressive, but perhaps didn't warrant that much of a response. And this is, of course, why we have the internet. To answer random questions that should not take up much of our time. So why did Bradley react that way? Really? Wow. Sports might mean something to me, but I hope that I never have it mean as much to me as soccer means to those kids right now. Regardless, I am certain that when Chris Cutshaw put the ball in the net to send it to overtime, the Braves' fans knew that it was going to happen. And when Cutshaw put the ball into the net the second time, each and every Brave fan in the grandstand thanked a power higher than themselves for having the opportunity to be there for it.

Go Bradley. All that stands between y'all and the championship is Ohio State and either UMass or UIC. We will be rooting for you throughout.