Friday, May 30, 2008

By George, Indy Car Racing Trying to Once Again Captivate Sports Fans

Tony George has done a wonderful job building up a racing series--unfortunately for George, the series that he helped to build is NASCAR, not his own Indy Racing League (IRL). When George founded the IRL in 1996 to compete with the established Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series, the resulting schism in open-wheel racing created a tremendous opportunity for NASCAR to expand beyond its Southern roots and become the premier auto racing series in the United States. After 14 years of bitter warfare in which both the IRL and CART lost fans, market share, TV ratings, money and prestige, CART is in its death throes and George's IRL is trying to pick up the shattered pieces of what remains of open-wheel racing in the USA.

George's grandfather, the legendary Anton "Tony" Hulman, ran the Indianapolis Speedway and played a major role in building the Indianapolis 500 into "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing"--and that was no mere catchphrase or advertiser's slogan: drivers from around the world dreamed of being one of the 33 entrants in this prestigious race and people who did not follow the sport the rest of the year watched the Indy 500 and were familiar with names like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that even now the average person on the street is more likely to have heard of Andretti or Foyt than any of the current Indy Car drivers other than perhaps Danica Patrick, a skilled racer whose fame is not strictly connected to her driving accomplishments. If you see someone driving too fast, you will say, "Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?" and not, "Who do you think you are, Danica Patrick?"

After 1996, the Indy 500 gradually became just another race. Its TV ratings dropped from 9.7 in 1995 to 7.1 in 1996 to 5.0 in 1997. Patrick's arrival on the scene in 2005 initially helped to boost ratings a bit but the event has never regained the popularity that it previously had; the Indy 500 had a 4.8 rating in 2007 and a 5.1 rating this year. It could be argued that in some years the Indy 500 was not even the biggest event being held at the Speedway, because the Brickyard 400--which was first run in 1994--has become an important NASCAR event. While the Brickyard 400's success may have been good news for George since he runs the Speedway, it was a sign of just how much the status of open-wheel racing racing has declined.

Indy Car racing's biggest problem is that the casual sports fan does not even know who the drivers are--let alone have a rooting interest in their performances. For decades, rivalries among Andretti, Foyt and the Unser brothers captivated large numbers of fans. Second and third generation members of those families are now racing but Indy Car racing fumbled the opportunity to take advantage of that continuity by stumbling around in the sports wilderness for more than a decade.

George and the IRL have taken the first step toward fixing this mess by ending the silly feud with CART and offering financial incentives to CART teams to encourage them to join the IRL. One report estimates that the Indy Car version of the Hatfields versus the McCoys has already cost George close to $200 million of his personal fortune and that he might end up paying another $30 million to put back together what he helped to tear apart. Although George has become in many ways the face of this disaster, this mess is not entirely his fault. As racing journalist Robin Miller said four years ago, "As much as Tony George should be reviled for screwing up the Indy 500 and open-wheel racing, the CART owners should be lined up and executed right along with him."

The bottom line is that racing fans and sports fans in general don't care whose fault it is or even what the original disputed issues were between George and the people who ran CART in the 1990s; they just want to be able to see exciting racing and they want to know enough about the drivers to be able to identify with them in some way. It is not clear how well the market will support one open-wheel racing series at this point, so the idea of having two competing series was sheer folly. Hopefully the consolidation of the sport under one sanctioning body will lead to a rejuvenation of its fortunes and the development of some great driver rivalries.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Can You Really Spy on Someone in Full View of 70,000 Fans and A National TV Audience?

I have mentioned repeatedly (including here and here) that the whole so-called "Spygate" situation has been overblown by the media and by Senator Arlen Specter, whose friends at Comcast have an ax to grind with the NFL. My take has always been that it is ludicrous to call something "spying" when the information in question is readily available to anyone who is watching the game on TV. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick made exactly the same point in his May 16 interview with Armen Keteyian of CBS News:

It wasn't anything that wasn't visible or wasn't available. We did it in a way that was more convenient and a way that we could study a little bit better. But those signals are available to anybody that wants to see them.

Here is the complete video of the interview:

You can read the complete transcript of the interview here. If you don't have the time or inclination to go through the entire thing, at least read this excerpt in which Belichick explains that the Patriots did not even attempt to hide what they were doing because he believed their actions to be in full compliance with NFL rules:

He (the cameraman) was in full Patriots gear. I could show you videos of him doing his job during the game, shooting the shot that he shot from the end zone--the kickers, the tight on the quarterback and, at times, signals--and there was no, we weren't trying to be discreet about it. Again, in all honesty we felt like what we were doing was okay...My interpretation of the rules came from the Constitution & Bylaws. In, I think it's paragraph 14 in there, the Constitution & Bylaws states very clearly that you cannot use any type of videotaping device or anything like that from the start of the game to the conclusion of the game. And that was never done. We never, ever used any of the videotaping in any way during the course of any game. And that's what I felt like I was in compliance with and that's my basis for really everything that we've done in terms of competing in the National Football League...It was never used during the playing of the game. Never. Now, subsequently there was a memo that Ray Anderson sent out at the beginning of the 2006 season, and that was an error on my part. I take full accountability for that. At that point I feel like I should have gone to the league--I made a mistake, I should have gone to the league and said 'Look, are we okay doing this even though we're not using it within the game?' And I didn't do that, we continued to do what we had done previously--at times, it wasn't every game, but it was a significant number--and did it based on the constitution and feeling like as long as we weren't using it during the game, that it was okay...I'm telling you what happened and that's what happened. I think if that (being deceptive) was our intent then we would have done it in a more discreet way. We were open about it. We had instances where opposing coaches actually turned and waved to the camera. They saw it. There were other teams that we felt like were doing it. Again, look, in the preparation for a game, the signals that a coach gives out there everybody can see. We've had coaches in the pressbox take notes of those signals, we've videotaped them. It wasn't anything that wasn't visible or wasn't available. We did it in a way that was more convenient and a way that we could study a little bit better. But those signals are available to anybody that wants to see them.

I have not been able to find the "Spygate" videos online but SportsCenter had a great clip of someone--presumably Matt Walsh--standing under a huge stadium scoreboard in full Patriots regalia openly filming the field. The only way he could have been more visible is if he had worn a Bozo the Clown nose and started waving giant semaphore flags. There is no way that any objective person could watch that tape and conclude that the Patriots were trying to hide what they were doing. They committed a technical violation of an NFL rule and were heavily punished for that but to call them "cheaters," to imply that this was some kind of covert operation or to suggest that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins are in any way tainted is absurd--and for Specter to call for a Congressional investigation of the violation of an NFL rule is ridiculous. Should Congress investigate holding penalties and pass interference calls, too? Any analogy made between "Spygate" and the performance-enhancing drugs problem is bogus because PED usage without a prescription is illegal and represents a potential public health problem, particularly for young athletes who look up to stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Matt Walsh Reveals...Nothing New About "Spygate"

After months and months of hype and overkill about "Spygate," former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh finally met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It turns out that there is no tape of St. Louis' walkthrough prior to Super Bowl XXXVI and, in fact, little new information about this media created "scandal." The Patriots broke the letter of a silly, poorly written NFL rule and they have been heavily disciplined for those actions. It is wrong to break rules but anyone who believes that this taping is why the Patriots have dominated the NFL in recent seasons is being foolish; it is extremely unlikely that the Patriots were the only team doing this, so whatever advantage they supposedly gained is somewhat mitigated by whatever advantage other teams gained by engaging in similar conduct. Let me clearly state that this by no means makes what the Patriots did right and anyone who is caught breaking any rule should be punished--but trying to steal publicly available signals by various means is a widespread practice; after all, that is why coaches send out dummy signals and try to disguise the signals that they use.

The Boston Globe's Mike Reiss wrote an excellent summary of what is known about "Spygate." There is no question that the Patriots violated NFL rules; after all, that is why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished the team and Coach Bill Belichick in an unprecedented fashion. When Belichick initially spoke with Goodell months ago he insisted that he honestly misinterpreted the rule and Goodell has said that he believes Belichick, even though this does not excuse Belichick's conduct. Belichick said that he had the tapes made in order to consult them for use later on and that he thought that the NFL's rules only prohibited such taping if the information from a tape was used in the game from which the tape originated. Reiss quotes the relevant rule (I added the bold text):

Constitution & Bylaws: “Any use by any club at any time, from the start to the finish of any game in which such club is a participant, of any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited, including without limitation videotape machines, telephone tapping, or bugging devices, or any other form of electronic devices that might aid a team during the playing of a game.”

If you read the bold text a certain way then you could understand it to mean that taping/electronic devices cannot be used to help a team during a game but that it is not prohibited to use information gathered by those devices to prepare for a future game. Admittedly, this is a thin reed to stand on but the text of that rule could have been written more clearly.

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was a member of the New England team that beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl. Here is what he thinks about "Spygate": "To be honest with you, my take now is the same as it's always been. Every team in the league is trying to do everything they can to get ahead. I'm sure most, if not all, are bending the rules in some way, shape or form. This just happened to be one that was very public, and the organization has been reprimanded for it. As a player here, I never did see anything other than what was already reported. Was it a violation of the spirit of the rules? Absolutely, it was, but I think all of that has been readily acknowledged."

Reiss' article also includes this interesting nugget about Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who has been the driving force making "Spygate" such a huge, overblown story: "...any mention of Specter, in my opinion, must include his strong financial connections to Comcast, while noting that the cable company is currently at odds with the NFL and NFL Network."

The Patriots have issued the following statement regarding the Goodell-Walsh meeting:

For the past 3 1/2 months, we have been defending ourselves against assumptions made based on an unsubstantiated report rather than on facts or evidence. Despite our adamant denials, the report ran on February 2, 2008, the day before Super Bowl XLII. That game was the second-most watched program in television history and it is unfortunate that today's news will not also reach an audience of that size.

We hope that with Matt Walsh's disclosures, everyone will finally believe what we have been saying all along and emphatically stated on the day of the initial report: "The suggestion that the New England Patriots recorded the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough on the day before Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 is absolutely false. Any suggestion to the contrary is untrue."

I stand by what I wrote nearly three months ago about "Spygate":

It would be a lot simpler if the NFL simply permitted teams to film anything that is publicly available. Signals that teams use on the sidelines during a game are not issued with an expectation of privacy. If the Patriots did film a private walkthrough then that is wrong, although it is still not clear what exactly they would have gained by doing this.

My take on this matter mirrors my opinion about the Roger Clemens case: if Belichick truly gained a significant competitive advantage by cheating then he should be punished--and if Walsh is lying and/or the Boston Herald's report is not true then they should be punished for slander.

5/14/08 UPDATE: The Boston Herald has issued an apology for erroneously reporting that the Patriots had taped St. Louis' Super Bowl XXXVI walkthrough. The Herald's false article came out just before New England's 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in this year's Super Bowl.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Roger Clemens Owes Greg Maddux an Apology

Considering everything that has happened in recent weeks, this is probably the last thing on Roger Clemens' mind but he owes Greg Maddux an apology. Why? Simple: Clemens stole from Maddux the title of greatest pitcher of the post-World War II era. Clemens ranks eighth all-time on the career wins list (354) but he is first among players whose careers started after 1942; Clemens also holds the record for most Cy Young Awards--seven--two more than Randy Johnson and three more than Maddux and Steve Carlton. Clemens' career began a couple years before Maddux' did and Clemens has always been more of a headliner than Maddux because of his hard throwing style that generated 4672 strikeouts, second on the all-time list and almost 1400 more than Maddux, whose 3298 strikeouts rank 11th all-time.

However, it is entirely possible--and seems likely--that the second half of Clemens' career was fraudulent. After the 1996 season, Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette said that Clemens was "in the twilight of his career." At the time that certainly seemed to be a reasonable statement: Clemens had gone 40-39 with an ERA of 3.78 in the previous four seasons after never having a losing season and only once having an ERA higher than 3.29 in the first nine seasons of his career. Clemens left the Red Sox and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and he instantly became a great pitcher again, going 21-7 and winning his fourth Cy Young Award six years after he captured his third such honor.

Is is possible that good, old fashioned hard work resurrected Clemens' career? Well, there is no doubt that he worked hard but the very idea behind performance-enhancing drugs is that they enhance your performance: they enable you to work harder than you otherwise would be able to and thus build more muscle than you could naturally. That muscle in turn enables a power pitcher to continue to throw hard, though the resulting strain on connective tissues can lead to injury. Remember how Clemens spent his last few seasons as a very effective part time player? That fits into exactly what one would expect from an older power pitcher who is juicing. Clemens hired Brian McNamee as his trainer in 1997 and McNamee has since testified that he began giving Clemens PEDs in 1998. Did Clemens regain his lost youth naturally and then need artificial help to keep it or did he actually begin cheating even earlier than McNamee said? We may never know the answer to that but what Clemens did after leaving the Red Sox is quite remarkable. Clemens had a career record of 192-111 (.634) in 1996 and in the next 11 years--at ages 34-44--he went 162-73 (.689), winning four Cy Youngs. Randy Johnson finished second to Clemens in two of Clemens' late career Cy Youngs ('97, '04), so perhaps Clemens owes Johnson an apology as well; strip Clemens of those honors and Johnson holds the record with six Cy Youngs.

We will probably never know for sure exactly what Clemens did and exactly how many of his wins and Cy Youngs should be attributed to cheating--and that is one of the most despicable things about his actions. Clemens is only five wins ahead of Maddux now, so Maddux may surpass him this season but historians and students of the game should not even wait for that to happen before they grant Maddux the recognition that he deserves. In case you are wondering, Maddux' game has never depended on power and neither his body size nor his numbers have undergone any sudden, unusual changes. Maddux is the ultimate craftsman who gets hitters out based on his knowledge of their tendencies and his ability to work the strike zone. He probably could not care less about who holds the mythical title of greatest post-WWII pitcher but--based on the body of his work--he certainly is more deserving of that honor than Clemens (how the truncated but brilliant career of Sandy Koufax ranks among post-WWII pitchers is a different issue but what I am talking about here is who had the "largest" post-WWII pitching career in terms of wins, Cy Youngs and dominance over an extended period).

Friday, May 2, 2008

Would the Oakland A's Have Carried Kirk Gibson Around the Bases?

You probably have already heard about the two college softball players--Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace from Central Washington University--who carried Sara Tucholsky (of Western Oregon University) around the bases after Tucholsky hit a three run homer but injured her knee while rounding first base. Tucholsky could not complete her tour around the base paths unassisted and the rules prohibited her teammates from helping her. Holtman asked the umpires if it would be permissible for members of the opposing team to carry Tucholsky and they said that it would be. So Holtman and Wallace picked Tucholsky up and carried her, helping her to lower her uninjured leg to touch each base; if they had not done this then Tucholsky would have only been credited with a single. Western Oregon eventually won the game 4-2.

I first found out about this story when I read a brief item about it in Thursday's USA Today. My immediate reaction was to think that guys would be much less likely to carry an opponent around the bases than girls and I decided to write a post centered around that theme. By happenstance, I discovered that George Vecsey of the New York Times had already written a column about this subject and I am really glad that I found his piece so that I could give him a hat tip here; I am very sensitive to the importance of giving other people credit for their original ideas so I certainly want to give Vecsey full credit for asking whether or not guys would carry an opponent around the bases. That said, I don't completely agree with Vecsey's take. He acknowledges that if Kirk Gibson had required assistance after his famous World Series home run in 1988 the Oakland A's would not have helped him but Vecsey attributes that to the larger stakes involved in a World Series game as opposed to a college softball game; Vecsey cites some examples of male athletes displaying similar acts of good sportsmanship in tennis and golf events that he deems to be less important than the World Series but doesn't Vecsey's reasoning cheapen the significance not only of those situations but also of what Holtman and Wallace did? Does Vecsey think that if something larger was at stake then they would have acted differently? According to the USA Today article, losing that game cost Central Washington an opportunity to participate in the playoffs. Who is to say that such a chance is intrinsically worth less than a World Series victory?

I suspect that Holtman and Wallace would have acted the same way regardless of what was at stake--and I also suspect that most male athletes would act differently. That does not make either choice wrong. This is not a matter of cheating versus playing by the rules but rather a situation in which two individuals decided to go well beyond the letter of the law and well beyond what many people would think is required by good sportsmanship in order to do something that they felt was just in a greater sense. Holtman said, "She hit it over the fence. She deserved it. Anybody would have done it. I just beat them to it.” I understand how Holtman feels and I think that what she did is great but I don't think that males would react the same way. Honestly, if I were in that situation I don't think it would have even occurred to me to ask if I could carry the injured opposing player around the bases; I would feel empathy for the injured player but those are the breaks of the game.

What would I have done if a teammate of mine came up with the idea of carrying the opposing player around the bases? Truthfully, it would feel strange to me to receive such assistance and it would also feel strange to me to offer such assistance. I suspect that most guys, if they are honest, would feel the same way in both regards, while I suspect that many, if not most, women would be inclined to both offer and accept help in such a situation. Perhaps this is another version of that old chestnut about guys getting lost because they refuse to ask for directions; sure, that is a stereotype but it is one that contains a grain of truth: why should we be reticent to acknowledge what we know from experience, namely that women tend to be more nurturing and place a greater value on communication and cooperation while men often seek to go it alone, neither asking for nor wanting to receive help? Recognizing that there are some intrinsic differences between the genders is not incompatible with saying that everyone should have equal opportunities; men and women approach certain situations differently but all people deserve to have the opportunity to go as far in their chosen endeavors as their talents and work ethic take them. Sometimes it seems like people are afraid to admit that men and women are different because they assume or fear that such differences will be used as the basis for discrimination.