The Criminals in College Sports Debate… Character Matters More Than Oversight

March 15, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

At times we have an inclination as a culture to abdicate responsibility for things rather than commit to being accountable. Sure, we could take the lead on that project at work, but it would be visible to management and it’s easier to play it safe. Yes, I could run down that dude that just stole that old lady’s purse, but it’s safer to stay put and hope things work out for her. Being accountable – having a true sense of responsibility – is often hard to come by as our culture evolves. But it is an absolutely essential trait to having good character – and winning in sports.

You may be wondering what the heck I am writing about. Fair. I am reminding everyone of a simple principle it seems all too easy to forget – that character matters in sports.

Reality dictates that not everyone is perfect. Translation? People screw up! No single demographic group screws up more in life than high schoolers. They have nearly adult bodies, and a poor understanding of how to properly use them. That means poor choices are made. Sometimes poor choices put a kid in jail, giving them a juvenile record. Should that juvenile record prevent a kid from being recruited as a college player? Absolutely not.

If character is important and must be measured, then this is one area where the world can do with a bit less oversight and regulation, and bit more people owning up to their actions.

I concede that young kids, especially high schoolers, are dangerous ones to invest the future of a high profile athletic program in. Just ask Jim Tressel what his most recent opinions on the subject are.

But, if a kid is going to commit a crime, knowing about an existing juvenile record isn’t necessarily a key indicator that they are sure to commit of committing another crime. America is a country of second chances, remember? If everyone that ever made a mistake was not given a second chance, we would be missing out on an awful of great businesses, and I’m sure a few important personal relationships, too.

It’s worth repeating – young kids make mistakes, mistakes that even put them in jail. In fact, they are entitled to make mistakes. Yes, that’s right – entitled. Mistakes are often how a youngster gains experience – some better than others. Some experience is gained easier than others

But that does not necessarily mean high schoolers with a juvenile record are broken human beings, or unworthy of competing in athletic competition. More than anything, college sports coaches are leaders that try to instill values in their players in addition to winning ballgames. Leaders need young men to lead, those who can benefit from their influence. Athletes who have made past mistakes need leaders willing to “take a chance” on them. Leaders willing to invest in their character.

Character has to matter in college athletics. A recruit should never be in a situation where a records search dictates whether or not a player is offered a scholarship. It should never come to a records search. If it does, then the recruit is hiding something or trying to fool the coach, and it is wise to stop pursuit.

It is true that these kids are important representatives of their respective universities. A kid a recruiting coach meets as young junior in high school could one day blossom into the face of an athletic program, and the brand of an entire university. Such is the case with college sports today. That potential evolution of a recruit to college superstar further solidifies the importance of character.

During the recruiting process, coaches should carefully inquire about important matters such as a juvenile record. And kids should readily admit mistakes what they learned. If the coach does not have a good feeling that the youngster has learned from the mistakes, then they probably will not be very coachable either. In other words, they are a bad recruit. But that determination is made through conversation, not through a end around background check.

It is fair for additional oversight to be added – if anywhere – within these college programs themselves. To force a head coach to always know where every player is at all times and what they are doing just isn’t realistic. Ensure that collegiate institutions are doing what they are supposed to be doing in protecting the youngsters they give responsibility and scholarship to, but let their lessons learned be part of their admitted character – not a sneaky way to prohibit to a second chance.

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The High School to College Jump Debate Verdict

March 3, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

I get teased for this a lot, but I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Michigan State head basketball coach institution Tom Izzo. He is a rare coach in college basketball, having taken six of his past 12 teams to the Final Four. He is also known as a coach who cares a great deal about graduating players. He is disciplined and tough, he doesn’t let players get away with stuff they should not. More than anything, he is fair. His players know his rules and standards, and they know the consequences of not living up to them (see Izzo dismissing two starts from this year’s team mid-season).

So when Tom Izzo stands up and says something is a good idea, it’s worth a listen. However, I had reservations about the idea of forcing high school kids to choose the NBA or three years of college at such a young age. It is a decision that has lasting impact and millions of dollars on the line… but it is made by a 17 or 18-year-old kid. Pressure anyone?

It is true that some of those kids do make good decisions. But, some don’t.

I understand the point Babe Ruthless is making about some of the most talented players in basketball being straight out of high school. But, just because a player is talented does not mean a player is great. There is a distinction. Many of the talented high school players the Babe lists off have taken years to evolve in the game because at the professional level a player needs beyond raw talent. They also, for example, must fully understand how to play effective basketball. They must be smart, and they must be good teammates to consistently win championships.

My point? For every Kobe Bryant there are 10 players like Darius Miles. Is that really good for the league? In reality, the NBA had to invent an entire developmental league – and even TITLE it as such – simply because the caliber of player that was entering the league was not ready to play basketball on a professional level. That proves there are a whole lot more players like Miles that need more seasoning to have a chance to cut it playing professional basketball.

The proposal on the table also isn’t quite as black and white and Babe Ruthless paints it. Players may choose when they are being recruited if they wish to enter the college ranks or attempt to make it in the NBA. But, if they choose college it is a three-year commitment. To me, this is not only prudent, but eminently reasonable.

Bleacher Fan wins this debate because he is sadly correct that supporting casts provide as much support as a 25-year-old bra. The overall quality of the talent in the NBA is down. Part of that is because of the expansion of the league over time diluting the talent pool. But a counteraction to that dilemma is to improve the quality of the players in the league. The NBA Development League has not, to this point, improved the overall quality of the NBA product. The reality is that college basketball is a better proving ground for great basketball talent, and the NBA is smart to back any proposal that feeds the league better players.

Given this construct, it is important to note that an obvious benefit is an overall improvement to the college game. These benefits are not the focus of this debate, as Bleacher Fan rightly states, but they are impossible to ignore.

Many of the college basketball teams that many of us have taken notice of at this stage of the season are playing well, in part, because their rosters are comprised of seniors. You bracketologists know that St. John’s, Purdue, Wisconsin, San Diego State, and many other schools have risen to the top of our minds because they have experienced players. A rule like the one Izzo is backing would promote the idea that more programs would have upperclassman, raising the overall quality of the college game AND improving the caliber of player in the professional game.

The proposal does not limit a player’s ability to earn money, as Babe Ruthless intimates. It gives them freedom – options – to choose which path they want. That doesn’t mean that pressure is non-existent. If a high school player wants to play professional ball, then pressure is part of the overall package – and if they are going to cut it, they can’t shy away.

Bottom line, Bleacher Fan has convinced me that this proposal is good for college basketball, and good for professional basketball – not to mention the players themselves. It’s a win-win.

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The High School to College Jump Debate

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Bleacher Fan.

The rule proposal is simple enough to understand. College basketball recruits would either have to commit to playing three seasons of college basketball, or they could just immediately to the NBA.

On the surface, this rule seems like a no brainer. Coaches like the idea, players seem to be okay with it, and legendary coach Tom Izzo is the one pushing this potential rule change up through the ranks. Done deal, right? Not so fast.

What kind of fair rule states a player – who has the physical ability to player professional basketball – cannot earn a living that way? A similar rule like this exists for college football and the NFL. But football and basketball are very different games. The counter argument is legit. Let’s find out exactly HOW legit.

Should college basketball recruits be forced to choose between playing three years of college ball or going straight to the professional ranks?

Babe Ruthless will argue the choice should be up to the player whenever they want to turn professional while Bleacher Fan believes the rules makes sense for all parties involved.

I get to judge. While I am a Tom Izzo fanboy, he is not a perfect human being, and this proposal has some serious questions marks in it. Convince me – is this potential rule fair?

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The Marginalizing Humanity Debate… Stats Are Smarter and Fair

February 22, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Nobody likes to lose. It sucks. Just image any losing scenario. Maybe your team gets robbed by a bad call. Or your team is poorly prepared because it lacks scouting tools. Or maybe management doesn’t understand how to assemble a winner because the front office people in the organization are constantly looking at the wrong data.

Each of those losing scenarios is historically accurate. Historically, front office people had no way of controlling that reality. Fortunately society and technology have evolved effectively and enables games to be played on an even playing field with replay, and front offices have to become smarter and more effective with the help of statistics and analysis.

My Dad – a self-made man who has an impressive resume and no college degree – always said, “They teach you one thing at Harvard Business school: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage.”

Ah, dad’s and their seminal wisdom.

This is a quote from my Dad that I was never reluctant to admit truth in or steal and use. As it applies to business, so too does the meaning apply in sports.

So many times in sports the outcome of a game can be changed simply by better, more thorough preparation. Statistics provide that necessary data to fuel more prepared teams and better outcomes to games.

My suspicion is that Loyal Homer is going to bring up the famed “gut feeling” manager of the last era in baseball, Bobby Cox. I really like Bobby Cox and believe is an amazing manager, one of the best baseball has ever had. Hid gut was impressive in many of the calls he made, for sure. But it was no perfect. And as many calls as he would get right, sometimes he would get it wrong by making the wrong gut choice. Though he did win on World Series in 1995, that was prior to the now dominant emphasis on statistics. In fact, when stats and sabermetrics became a bigger part of baseball, Bobby Cox’s teams started to be less effective, and a seemingly dominant manager and team began to slip in the division, and then disappear from the national stage entirely.

During that time – from the late 1990s to the 2000s – sabermetrics took off in popularity and usefulness. For those unfamiliar with the concept, sabermetrics is the scientific use of statistical data to make baseball decisions. Bill James is the father of sabermetrics. He has written over 20 books on the use of statistics in managing baseball and has become an integral part of one of the most successful baseball franchises in the past eight years, the Boston Red Sox.

We all know the history of the fledgling Red Sox. At one time the franchise was considered perpetually snake bitten and impossible to take to a World Series. Then he was hired as a Senior Advisor in Baseball Operations because of his impressive resume in statistics and analysis. What happened next? The Red Sox won a pair of World Series championships, first in 2004 then again in 2007.

Those victories were no gut feel, lucky wins, either. They were a collection of seasons, games, and moments that were carefully analyzed and accurately diagnosed with the help of statistics that helped forecast the right managerial and front office moves.

Boston went from virtual irrelevance to a now traditional power in a division that was dominated by the New York Yankees. Since the Red Sox adopted the philosophy, many other teams have as well, including the San Francisco Giants, The Tampa Rays, the Philadelphia Phillies, and many more. It does not get more obvious – statistics and analysis help a team win, and good decision making from analysis makes good teams great. It is the modern approach for getting the most out of the collection of talent on a team.

As enchanting as they are, hunches and gut feels are a thing of the past. As much as we all may want the charming approach of yesteryear to remain the standard – especially in a sport like baseball – it simply isn’t reality if the goal is to win, and win consistently.

A gut feeling is not business like. It is uncontrolled and a not a repeatable process. It is not something that can be replicated and enhanced for improvement. It is very risky. In an era where teams are less willing to make bold and risky moves, statistics help govern winning actions. And, that’s okay. Like it or not, it is progress.

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The Cardinals-Pujols Negotiation Debate

February 17, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

These types of issues in sports always perplex me. Albert Pujols is clearly the best baseball player the St. Louis Cardinals have, and likely the best player in all of Major League Baseball. But, with his contact up after the 2011 season, it is time to work on a new deal. If no deal happens by the end of today, talks will continue after the season – when Pujols is a free agent with a maximum amount of leverage

Ten years and $275M is the first baseman’s starting point. That is big time A-Rod type money that many would agree Pujols likely deserves. But, the St. Louis Cardinals are in a tough spot. The franchise is not among the richest in the league (unless the conversation turns to tradition). It seems if Pujols really wanted to play for the Cardinals he would move off of his high price tag and get a deal done.

So, here we are at yet another annual, typical sports standoff between star player and franchise. But, in this case with Pujols and
the Cardinals, which side is right and justified?

Loyal Homer will argue that Pujols is being outrageous in his demands while Babe Ruthless will argue it is the franchise that is failing to see value

It all comes down to today. A deal must be agreed upon, or the deadline passes and Pujols reports to camp, where anything can happen with contract negotiations… from a calmly negotiated deal (unlikely since Pujols said he does not wish for talks to continue into the season) to a standoff that will continue indefinitely and begin to impact how effective the player can be (far more likely). Which is it? But, more importantly, which side is right?

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The Firing Jeff Fisher Debate… Hire Slow and Fire Fast

February 7, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

Getting fired sucks. There is just no way around that. But, getting fired after 16 years on the job? That sting has to feel worse, like when you bang a knee playing football outside in 20-degree weather. That is the kind of sting that stays with a person for a while. That is what Jeff Fisher is likely still experience after he was fired by Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams.

Granted, the timing was terrible. But as the old, tried and true business axiom goes – hire slow and fire fast. Once a team realizes a coach is not the right coach for the team – regardless of the reasons – leadership should act quickly and fire the head coach. The Tennessee Titans acted prudently in their firing of Jeff Fisher, setting the team, and the entire organization, on a much better path for success. Even though it may be difficult to see that right now.

It is unfortunate that the seeming majority of upper echelon coaching candidates were off the market by the time Fisher was let go. But if Fisher wasn’t the right coach for the long term, his firing was unavoidable – no matter what other potential coaching candidates were available.

There are some organizations in sports where owners have far too much influence. In fact, they meddle. Fisher was willing to put up with Titans’ owner Bud Adams and his opinions about personnel. But Fisher erred early in his relationship with Adams by allowing the owner too wield much influence. That early mistake opened the door for the beginning of the end for Fisher, and drafting Vince Young sped up the inevitable.

Vince Young’s bad attitude and ability to receive and miraculously maintain an advocate in Bud Adams prevented Fisher achieving the success he enjoyed early in his head coaching career. But that situation was Fisher’s fault.

Fisher failed because he was unable to oust Young after Young churned through three of his offensive coordinators – including the very well respected Norm Chow. Regardless of how much affection Bud Adams has – or had – for Vince Young, Fisher should have not given into Adams. Adams is not a head football coach, and Fisher should have played the coaching card. It was clear to Fisher early on that Young was not the right quarterback for his style of team. Instead of just standing up for his beliefs and style, he relented to keep his job. It’s hard for a coward to lead a football team.

Without an advocate for a head coach, the team began to take on the persona of its supposed star player, Vince Young. Young’s flighty, unreliable approach to the game infected the rest of the players. The players – it was clear- were given far more power and influence than they should have received. Fisher failed to maintain his hold on authority for his team. They were desperate for a leader able to unite the team, and Fisher could not longer do that. When a leader fails to lead in a business, that leader must be replaced. And Fisher has now rightly been replaced.

Fisher was a good coach at one point. He led a team to within the nose of the football of defeating the vaunted Best Show on Turf in the 2000 Super Bowl. But over time Jeff Fisher allowed his influence and respect to be undermined. He failed to live by his core values, and it is very hard to lead when that is the case. He had to be replaced, though he was once considered one of the game’s best coaches – and probably will be again.

Bud Adams should have fired Jeff Fisher. But in doing so he must also take time and address other issues that are plaguing his organization. The Titans needs a leader who is able to unify the locker room. If the Titans expect to have a fighting chance when they return to the gridiron (whenever that will be), Bud Adams needs to reflect seriously on the management style of his next coach. Hire slow, and fire fast. The timing stinks, but Adams must now take his time and architect a winning organization from the ground up.

But, one thing is clear – Jeff Fisher was not the coach to lead the team anymore. Once that decision is made, it’s best to cut ties. Fisher’s firing was justified.

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The Shorten NASCAR Races Debate Verdict

February 2, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Optimist Prime.

It is very easy to dismiss the notion that a sport should be able to exist outside of any third party influences. If this were an ideal world where were played inside a vacuum, where the playing field is always equal, and where life doesn’t constantly interrupt with the its relentless imperfections, then this debate would be an open and shut case.

But, life is complicated. And, as a reflection of life, sports are complicated as well. Thank goodness! That is what keeps us all so entertained, so tuned in for all 365 days on the calendar.

This debate was, in theory, simple. Prove or disprove that NASCAR – and by extension all major sports – should not change format or rules at the behest of influences outside of a sport’s governing body or representative participants.

Interestingly, Optimist Prime is dead wrong about the core of this debate. It is about whether NASCAR should bow to outside interests to change its sport. I think it’s clear that races should be shorter.

Both arguments made it clear that NASCAR needs to shorten races. No argument from me – that is not even debatable. Look at the most popular racing in the world, Formula One. Races are 2-2.5 hours. They NEVER extend beyond 2.5 hours. It’s easy for TV, for sponsors, for fans – for everyone involved.

With NASCAR, rain, and weather in general, are no small influence on the races. If it rains late in the second hour of a race, the race – and its coverage – will be extended indefinitely until the race is over. OR, the conclusion of the race will be postponed a day or two and rescheduled. That’s good for fans. The fact is, FOX (or any network, for that matter) doesn’t want that to extend its entire schedule into its primetime lineup, so it behooves the network to pressure for shorter races.

Okay, shorter races it is. But should NASCAR bow to outside influences?

Starting with Optimist Prime, I must admit that I am rightly skeptical of the notion that FOX is choosing to listen to fans more than sponsors. That simply is only half the story. Fans do dictate ratings, but FOX is likely full up with diminishing ratings as races go longer and longer. Fans speak, and sponsors react. Optimist Prime IS correct, however, in implying that any counter reaction from NASCAR is inherently a reaction to both fan and sponsor.

Optimist Prime makes a good point about the nature of NASCAR races, and how tuning cars in-race does not appeal to the vast majority of the audience. There is SO much broadcast time to fill in a race, however, that car tuning gets a healthy dose of coverage. Frankly, FOX doesn’t even do a good enough job of covering tweaks in race with their sideline crew. The strategy of NASCAR probably isn’t as appealing as it would be to, say, Formula One fans. Therefore it makes sense to shorten races to force the cars into more of a REAL sprint mode – a style that would have broad appeal.

Fans speak through TV ratings and attendance, which inherently impact sponsorship and advertising revenue. It makes sense for that to influence the sport, then.

But, fans are an outside interest. The sponsors and businesses the fans’ action influence is also outside interests. Both have earned a voice in shaping the sport.

Ironically, after misdiagnosing the true meaning of this debate, Optimist Prime still does an excellent job of proving that fans and sponsors should be allowed to change a sports, which is enough to win my vote for debate winner.

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